BERKELEY -- California agencies have very little authority to regulate a massive increase in crude oil shipments by rail, and only now are they realizing the magnitude of the potentially explosive situation, according to state officials speaking Wednesday at a workshop sponsored by the California Energy Commission.
"It's a wake up call when you look at the projections," said commission Chair Robert Weisenmiller. "We have to plan for the worst case."
Only in the last month, thanks to an order by the U.S. Department of Transportation, have railroads begun to disclose to the state Office of Emergency Services shipments of 1million gallons or more of highly flammable Bakken crude oil. Before that happened May 7, nobody knew anything about the shipments or where they were going, Weisenmiller said.
Crude oil rail shipments have increased 506 percent in 2013 to 6.3 million barrels, according to a report by the state Interagency Rail Safety Working Group released June 10. That number could increase to 150 million barrels of oil in 2016, it said. Petroleum spills on railroads in California increased from 98 in 2010 to 182 in 2013, according to the Office of Emergency Services.
In California, crude goes by rail to the cities of Richmond, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Carson, Long Beach and Vernon, according to the energy commission.
The only thing state and local governments can do to try and prevent a catastrophic disaster is to enforce federal rules and prepare local first responders, officials said. The regulatory effort falls on the California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey.
"I'm not enthusiastic about having tens of thousands of tank cars running around California because accidents are inevitable," Peevey said at the workshop. "There's been a huge increase in volume and we have to step up our awareness and activities, in cooperation with the federal government, but the feds have the ultimate responsibility."
The commission recently added seven rail safety inspectors who look at rail cars, railroad lines, bridges and shipping requirements, bringing the total to 59 inspectors statewide, which Peevey said was adequate for this year.
Peevey dismissed criticism that the PUC has been too easy on industry it is supposed to regulate, and assured the public it is up to the task.
"We've been pretty darn tough," he said.
Weisenmiller said the state first needs to identify the areas most at risk for crashes and make sure the tracks are maintained. He acknowledged there is no way to prevent shipments from coming into the state, but the state can "get its act together and reach out to communities near rail lines and provide first responders with information and technical expertise," so they can respond to an accident.
As the state tries to catch up and wrap its collective mind around the increased shipments, oil companies are attempting to add projects that would bring in more oil by rail.
Valero Refining Co. is planning on 100 cars per day to its Benicia facility by the first quarter of 2015; West Pac Energy is planning 70 cars per day to a facility in Pittsburg; Phillips 66 is planning a crude-by-rail project in Santa Maria that could bring shipments through the Bay Area; Alon USA is planning 200 cars a day in Bakersfield and Plains All American is planning for 200 cars a day in Bakersfield, according to the Oil by Rail Safety in California report.
Union Pacific Railroad Spokeswoman Liisa Lawson Stark said the company is not transporting any Bakken crude into the state, but it is bringing in other types of oil.
But Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is bringing in nine full train loads of Bakken per month into California, said spokeswoman LaDonna DiCamillo. She did not know how many tank cars each train has or what the actual volume is.
Lawson Stark said that even though railroads are now required to report shipments of the highly flammable Bakken crude oil to the Office of Emergency Services, the information most likely will not be available to the public. A spokesman for the office did not immediately return phone calls.
Reach Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.