Riding a wave of public angst over the specter of explosions and toxic chemical leaks in densely populated communities, representatives of two East Bay cities voted to oppose the transport of crude oil by rail through the East Bay.
With unanimous votes Tuesday, the Berkeley and Richmond city councils vowed to fight with an arsenal of legal action, lobbying, public education, and calls for greater transparency on the part of the petroleum and railroad industries.
"There are terrible threats in our midst," Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said before the council called on the East Bay's congressional delegation to take steps to halt the transport of crude on the nation's railways, pending comprehensive regulations that would protect human life and the environment. "Ultimately, we need to ban it from coming through our community."
Earlier in the evening, the Berkeley City Council approved a similar resolution, co-sponsored by Vice Mayor Linda Maio and Councilman Darryl Moore, that would loop in other city and state and federal officials, oppose expansions of any Bay Area refineries, and weigh in on pending refinery projects in Benicia and Rodeo as well as on a rail spur extension project at the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery in Central California.
It was Berkeley's belief that Phillips 66 planned to bring in crude along existing rail lines from Sacramento to Central Californiathat sparked the city's action.
Speakers at both meetings evoked the image of an inferno last July, when a train carrying highly flammable Bakken crude derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and causing massive destruction to the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
"The movement of this volatile oil through our community represents a threat we can't quite comprehend at this moment," said Berkeley Councilman Max Anderson. "We're talking about rendering a large swath of our community uninhabitable and toxic in terms of future generations. What we are doing today is a small effort, but it can grow."
The council actions came even as Phillips 66 backed off from assertions in its draft environmental report that identified Bakken, so named after an oil field that covers parts of North Dakota and Canada, as the most likely source of the crude that would arrive by rail.
Many East Bay officials and environmentalists believe the itinerary to Santa Maria would include all or parts of Amtrak's Capitol Corridor from Martinez to San Jose via Richmond, Berkeley and other densely populated communities.
Earlier Tuesday, Phillips 66 spokesman Dean Acosta stopped short of denying that Bakken would be the source of the crude headed for Santa Maria by rail.
"SMR is configured to run the heavier California crudes and will continue to do so in the future," Acosta said in an email. "There are no plans to change the configuration."
On Wednesday, Acosta said he had nothing to add to his previous day's statement.
The other major source of North American crude transported by rail in large quantities is the tar sands variety from western Canada.
Whichever variety is transported, the Union Pacific Railroad will determine the route, Acosta said. Union Pacific owns the tracks that carry Capitol Corridor trains as well as the Coast line that serves Santa Maria, in San Luis Obispo County.
Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said a decision on the route would be "made at a later date." According to California Energy Commission statistics, the volume of crude transported by rail into Northern California increased by 57 percent during 2013. About 85 percent of the crude came from North Dakota, followed by 12.5 percent from Colorado. Four of the five Northern California oil refineries on the commission's list are in Contra Costa County; the other is in Solano County.
Before the Richmond council vote, oil industry author Antonia Juhasz detailed the nationwide increase in accidents associated with rail transport of Bakken crude.
From 1975 to 2012, 792,600 gallons of oil were spilled in train accidents, Juhasz said, citing statistics from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2013, 1.3 million gallons were spilled in accidents, more than the combined total of all previous years since 1975.
She cited three contributing factors: More oil is being harvested and moved within the continent, the oil is sent to coastal refineries for processing and export due to higher international prices, and regulation has not kept pace with the rapid changes.
"A whole lot more oil is being spilled by trains," Juhasz said. "It's dramatically worse."
Tina Barbee, a spokeswoman for the Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery outside Martinez, which, according to industry reports, has received train cars of crude oil from North Dakota since September, would not comment on the Richmond and Berkeley council votes.
"However, we receive crude through a variety of shipping methods," Barbee said in an email Wednesday, "and, as with all of our operations, we comply and will continue to comply with all applicable regulations."
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.