July 9, 2020
California to impose fee on crude oil rail shipments
SACRAMENTO - California leaders have included several safety provisions in this year’s state budget with the aim of preventing toxic spills and fires as oil companies ship more crude oil on trains through cities and wildland areas.

Beginning in the coming fiscal year, the state will apply a 6.5-cent fee on oil companies for every barrel of crude that arrives in California on rail, or that is piped to refineries from inside the state.

The resulting funds, estimated at $11 million in the first full year, will be allocated for oil spill prevention and preparation work, and for emergency cleanup costs. The efforts will be focused on spills that threaten waterways, and will allow officials to conduct response drills.

The budget also separately includes funds to hire seven more rail safety inspectors for the California Public Utilities Commission, PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said.

The safety efforts have taken on urgency as oil companies reveal plans for hundreds of crude-by-rail shipments in California, including a proposal by the Valero Refining Co. to ship 100 crude oil tank cars a day through downtown Sacramento and downtown Davis to Benicia. Details of that plan are expected to be released by Benicia officials Tuesday.

Federal officials have warned that one of the crude oils being shipped into the state, from the Bakken region of North Dakota, appears to be more flammable than typical crude oils. Three recent train crashes and explosions, including one that killed 47 people in the Canadian city of Lac-Megantic last year, prompted federal transportation officials last month to require that railroads notify state emergency officials of large Bakken shipment times and routes.

Central to the state’s safety efforts will be keeping a closer watch on the tracks themselves. The state budget includes seven new rail inspector positions to help the California Public Utilities Commission fulfill its mandate to inspect every mile of rail in the state annually. PUC deputy director of rail safety programs Paul King said his agency has failed in that task some years because of lack of personnel.

The state Senate on Monday passed a resolution urging the U.S. Department of Transportation and other federal agencies to write tougher standards for train tank cars and to “prioritize safety over cost effectiveness” in dealing with rail crude shipments. Federal officials have said they intend to improve design standards for rail cars hauling crude oil, but haven’t set a date.

Sens. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Lois Wolk, D-Davis, introduced a bill last week that would impose a second shipping fee on oil companies to be used to train and equip “first responders,” such as fire departments and hazardous materials crews, to deal with major spills and fires on railroad lines. The authors have not yet determined the fee amount.

A recent state report found that 40 percent of local firefighters in the state are volunteers whose departments generally lack the training and equipment to deal with major hazardous materials spills. (Source: Sacramento Bee)
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