MARTINEZ -- Bill Nichols of the Martinez Environmental Group said the city is in "dire peril" because of trains transporting oil through the region.
"Accidents have risen exponentially," he said, at the May 7 City Council meeting.
The Martinez group is part of a larger movement working to stop crude oil rail shipments partly because of the increased number of accidents in recent years. Explosions, fires and spills have occurred, sometimes in populated areas. Nichols cited a July 2013 accident in Canada resulting in 47 deaths.
Trains have intersected Martinez since 1877 and the tracks are now used by the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) and Union Pacific railroads. As well as passenger service, some freight trains contain oil and chemicals.
Nichols said his concern about lighter Bakken crude is due to the fact that it is highly combustible, and because shale oil production has boomed at the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Heavier Canadian tar sands crude is also increasingly shipped from Alberta, Canada.
Mayor Rob Schroder noted that the Martinez rail switching yard is not far from his home.
"Of course we are very concerned. The safety of our residents is the most important part of my job," he said. "It is not just Bakken oil, other trains carry chemicals."
The Bakken crude oil is desirable in the market partly because it does not require as much refining to make gasoline, and is therefore cheaper to produce. While that helps reduce American dependence on Middle East oil, there is little pipeline infrastructure in place and new pipeline construction has been resisted for environmental reasons.
Oil producers turned to rail because it is environmentally cleaner, safer and more cost effective than trucking to refineries in the Bay Area and elsewhere, but not to Shell Martinez Refinery.
Tesoro began receiving Bakken crude shipments at the Kinder Morgan terminal in Richmond and trucking them to the refinery near Martinez, according to a Reuters report.
In March, Valero Energy Corp. revealed plans for a new rail terminal in Benicia to receive Bakken crude shipments, and Phillips 66 has plans for a project in Santa Maria which would facilitate train transport through Martinez to its Rodeo refinery.
"In 2008, there were 9,500 trainloads (of oil) in the United States," Nichols said. "In 2013, that number has increased to 413,000."
In spite of that volume, Lena L. Kent, BNSF spokeswoman later said, "BNSF experienced the fewest mainline derailments in its history in 2013, and the Federal Railroad Administration says that preliminary data indicates it may have been the safest year for the rail industry as well, following 2012, which had been the safest year in history for both BNSF and the rail industry."
At the meeting, Nichols' lengthy presentation was full of alarming statistics, and he requested the City Council to take a stand against the shipments. He asked the council to appeal to other elected officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown and to do the same.
Councilman Mark Ross subsequently observed, "It is important to pursue safety in the overall production and transport of oil, but there has to be a reduction in demand. It has only increased because it has become more profitable."
Ross serves on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board, but said it only controls stationary sources.
"It is up to the railroads and the federal government to make it safe. It is far short of what is needed nationwide," Ross said. "The demand is going to be met ... if they have to carry (crude oil) by buckets. It will have to be met."
Contact Dana Guzzetti at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 925-202-9292.