Benicia Oil-by-Rail Battle Hinges on Legal Controversy 

Opponents of oil-by-rail shipments want the city to block a proposed Valero facility, but Valero says the city lacks this power.

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An oil-by-rail facility that Valero wants to build at its Benicia refinery has been stalled by opponents concerned about environmental impacts and safety issues for over three years now. But Valero and an attorney working on contract for the City of Benicia claim that the city cannot stop the project because federal railroad law preempts the city's powers. Project opponents say this is a flawed interpretation of federal law, however, and that Valero's new oil facility should be cancelled.

Valero's original proposal was presented in 2013 as a simple plan to build a couple of rail spurs from the main railroad line to the company's refinery, and the city announced its intention to approve the plan without doing an environmental impact review. A torrent of opposition greeted this announcement, however. As a result, the city was forced to conduct three environmental impact reviews and hold public hearings. Then, last February, Benicia's planning commission unanimously reversed approval for the project. Now the oil facility is pending a final decision by the city council.

Supporters say the crude-by-rail project is necessary to preserve Valero's — and Benicia's — economic viability and the nation's energy independence. Opponents say it will cause increased air pollution and environmental destruction, and that expanding oil-by-rail transportation increases the risk of catastrophic accidents like explosions and fires due to derailment.

But according to Bradley Hogin, a contract attorney advising the city, the federal government's authority over railroads means that local governments are not allowed to make regulations that affect rail traffic — even indirectly. And when they're deciding on a local project, cities are not allowed to consider the impact of anything that happens on a rail line, claims Hogin. The legal doctrine Hogin is referring to is called federal preemption.

But other attorneys call Hogin's interpretation of federal laws "extreme" and say that the city has every right to block the project if it so chooses. Environmentalists have also pointed out that Hogin has represented oil companies against environmental and community groups in the past. Project opponents say Hogin is biased in favor of Valero, and is not giving the city accurate legal advice. When asked if Hogin's previous work suggests that he could be biased, Benicia City Attorney Heather McLaughlin said no. "I think he has had great experience in the refinery industry and I think that's been helpful for us," she said.

Hogin's legal argument that cities are preempted from influencing oil-by-rail projects has major national implications. As the shipment of crude oil via railroad has grown in recent years, so have the number of derailments, oil spills, fires, and explosions, including the 2013 explosion that killed forty-seven people in Lac Megantic, Quebec. As a result, communities across North America have demanded that local authorities stop rail shipments of crude oil through their towns. In addition to Benicia, San Luis Obispo County is currently in the midst of a battle over crude by rail.

"Hogin is making a case that would affect cities across the nation dealing with crude by rail," said Marilyn Bardet, a founder of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community. "They [are trying] to create a legal precedent here."

Many lawyers, including California Attorney General Kamala Harris, say the exact extent of federal preemption of local authority is still being worked out in the courts. In her legal opinion on the Valero project's environmental review, Harris cited several cases in which local governments were allowed to implement health and safety regulations involving railroads.

Several lawyers submitted opinions and testified in Benicia City Council hearings held on April 4 and 5 challenging Hogin's interpretation. And in one of the hearings, Berkeley City Council member Linda Maio told her Benicia counterparts that the city council has the right to make its own land-use decisions. "This is in your town and you've been elected to see to the health and safety of your citizens," said Maio.

Valero and its critics have been arguing about the extent to which Benicia's authority is preempted by federal law since last summer. After the planning commission rejected Valero's project in February, the company showed up at the March city council meeting with a surprise request: that the council delay voting on the project until Valero has a chance to make an appeal to the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), which regulates railroads.

That didn't sound right to Benicia resident Andres Soto, who works for Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental group opposed to the project, so Soto called the STB and talked to staff attorney Gabriel Mayer. In a report Soto submitted to the city council, he wrote that Mayer told him that the STB is not the final authority on federal preemption, and that the state and federal courts serve that purpose.

Soto also said that the STB deals with disputes among railroads, and since Valero is not a railroad, it's unlikely the agency would take its case. Many speakers at last week's hearings urged the city council to deny Valero's bid for a delay and reject the project immediately.

But project supporters emphasized the economic benefits of bringing crude oil by rail to Benicia. Berman Olbadia of the Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry lobbying group, said that Valero creates jobs and generates tax revenue. Michael Wolf, of Ageion Energy Services, said that oil by rail reduces California's dependence on foreign oil.

Later, however, Greg Karras, senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment, said North American crude would create serious new problems that the environmental reviews for the Valero project did not address. Canadian tar sands produce very heavy oil with an extra load of toxic chemicals, said Karras. In addition, refining tar sands oil would dramatically increase the refinery's emissions of carbon dioxide, the main pollutant causing global warming. The other major type of North American crude from North Dakota's Bakken fields produces highly explosive oil. Trains carrying Bakken crude have been involved in a number of fires and explosions.

People from "uprail" communities have also turned out at Benicia hearings to oppose the Valero project. "The oil trains will pass through our downtown and pass my house," said Frances Burke, a resident of Davis. "We will have the fumes and particulate matter from increased daily trains. I'm also a potential victim of a deadly accident, explosion, or derailment."

Benicia resident Bardet said the project site is especially dangerous because the crude-oil-offloading tracks would be "adjacent to crude oil storage tanks and Sulphur Springs Creek, in a flood-plain zone and active fault zone, and also directly across from the industrial park along East Channel Road." According to Bardet, derailment or fire involving flammable crude oil could have catastrophic results.

College student Jaime Gonzalez said the project would further proliferate fossil fuels, which accelerate climate change, and that future generations will bear more of the burden. "The consequences would fall on the shoulders of my generation," he said.

Hearings will continue April 18 and 19 in Benicia, and the city council will then decide whether to wait for Valero's federal appeal, or vote to approve or deny the project.

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