BERKELEY -- The tracks that carry Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains through about a dozen heavily populated East Bay and South Bay communities could become a rail superhighway for potentially explosive crude oil transports to Central California under a plan by the Phillips 66 oil company, Berkeley officials warn.
A project at Phillips 66's Santa Maria refinery would enable it to receive crude oil from North American sources that are served by rail, according to a draft environmental report under review by San Luis Obispo County.
The report identifies the most likely source of the crude as the Bakken oil field that covers parts of North Dakota and Canada. Last July, a train carrying Bakken crude exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and nearly destroying the town.
This latest project would add to a growing trend in California to receive imported oil over land via rail rather than by sea. The train cars filled with oil would roll through Sacramento, the East Bay and South Bay on Union Pacific tracks, switching to the UP's Coast Line and on to Santa Maria, according to Berkeley officials who have analyzed the Santa Maria report.
At its peak, the Santa Maria refinery would receive five trains a week, each just under 4,800 feet long with 80 tank cars, two buffer cars and three locomotives, according to the document.
Bakken crude is light and less viscous than most other varieties of crude, including tar sands. Bakken crude has a lower flash point and is much more flammable.
Phillips 66 did not immediately respond to phone calls and emails Monday. But in a comment in the Santa Maria report, the company wrote that the Santa Maria refinery "is not equipped to process more than nominal volumes of light, sweet crude such as that from the Bakken oil field."
Ellen Carroll, San Luis Obispo County's planning manager and environmental coordinator, said in a phone call Monday that "Phillips 66 has indicated to us that they are looking in more detail into where they are actually going to be getting their crude from."
Carroll said her office is reviewing more than 800 comment letters and that no date has been set for the next hearing.
The prospect of increased shipments of crude has provoked concerns among some residents who live near petroleum refineries, including Chevron in Richmond, Phillips 66 in Rodeo, Shell and Tesoro Golden Eagle, both in the Martinez area, and Valero in Benicia.
But the concerns were based on the notion that refineries would eventually receive crude oil by rail for their own operations, something that is already happening to a limited degree at Tesoro, according to industry sources. Now, the idea the Bay Area could be a transit route for crude oil headed elsewhere in California has spurred elected officials to action.
On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council will discuss a resolution opposing the transport of hazardous crude by rail along the Union Pacific railway through California and the East Bay.
Teagan Clive, a Rodeo environmental activist, praised Berkeley officials for not sitting idly by.
"(The resolution) lays the groundwork for communities to decide for themselves whether they want volatile crude coming through their towns," she said.
Also on Tuesday, the Richmond City Council will consider a resolution calling on the East Bay Congressional delegation to take steps to halt the movement of crude oil by rail in the nation until it is fully regulated.
"We want to avoid at all costs a tragedy in Richmond in the face of so many tragedies around the country and in Canada from this crude-by-rail type of transport," Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said in an email Monday.
South Bay officials reached Monday said they had not heard of the plans.
Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt, in an email Monday, said only that "routing for potential crude oil customers will be determined at a future time" and that "currently, we do not move any crude oil through the Bay Area."
The Santa Maria draft report does not refer specifically to the Capitol Corridor as part of a future transit route for the crude. It refers, however, to the Coast Starlight, which runs between Seattle and Los Angeles and uses the same tracks as the Capitol Corridor trains between Sacramento and San Jose.
The report analyzes some of the possible impacts on Coast Starlight schedules, but only from San Jose south.
"Potential impacts to the Coast Starlight schedule could occur anywhere north of San Jose as well," the report reads. "However, north of San Jose, through the Bay Area, there are areas of multiple mainline tracks and a large number of commuter trains. Therefore, it is unclear how much the crude oil unit train would overlap with the Coast Starlight. Given this uncertainty, the (report) has limited the analysis to the Coast Line."
Berkeley Vice Mayor Linda Maio, who is co-sponsoring the draft resolution with Councilman Darryl Moore, characterized the lack of specific mention of the Capital Corridor in the Santa Maria report as "sleight of hand-like."
"If they want to rule it out, let's hear it," Maio said.
Staff writers Robert Rogers and Eric Kurhi contributed to this report. Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.
What: Berkeley City Council
Where: City Council chamber, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
What: Richmond City Council
Where: Community Services Building, 440 Civic Center Plaza
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday