Like many other fossil fuel infrastructure expansions in the Bay Area, the Valero Crude by Rail project is a key part of the transition to greater processing of extreme crudes. Yet another project poses significant, yet unnecessary public health hazards—this time to Benicia, the Bay Area, the Delta ecosystem and all communities up-rail from Benicia.
Valero's recently completed Valero Improvement Project, or VIP, was designed to facilitate the processing of much higher sulfur and heavier crudes than the refinery's former crude oil slate. The VIP permitted the Refinery to process heavier, high sulfur feedstocks as 60% of total supply, up from only 30% prior to the VIP. The project also raised the average sulfur content of the imported raw materials from past levels of about 1 - 1.5% up to new levels of about 2 - 2.5% sulfur.
Now, Valero's proposed Crude by Rail Project is specifically designed for the importation into Valero of so-called “mid-continent, North American” crudes, which would be either very lightweight, highly flammable shale oil from Bakken ND or extra heavy tar sands from Alberta Canada. However, because the Valero Crude by Rail Project combined with the VIP are related parts of a single expanded heavy oil project, the Crude by Rail Project is most likely for the delivery of tar sands (bitumen).
Tar sands is open pit mined as a solid; it does not start out as a liquid. The Bitumen mined in Northern Canada needs to be heated to several hundred degrees before it can be diluted with chemical solvents and made to flow into railroad tank cars. According to the recent Carnegie Endowment study, Know Your Oil: Towards a Global Climate-Oil Index, tar sands refining produces three times the climate-changing greenhouse gases in order to make gasoline, compared to traditional lighter crudes.
Worse, in a 2007 US Geological Service study, it was reported that tar sands bitumen contains 102 times more copper, 21 times more vanadium, 11 times more sulfur, six times more nitrogen, 11 times more nickel, and 5 times more lead than conventional heavy crude oil. Sulfur and nitrogen oxide pollutants contribute to smog, soot, acid rain and odors that affect nearby residents. Because of these considerations, Benicia could likely experience an increase in local air pollution, and the refinery's equipment could suffer enhanced sulfur corrosion, leading to potential accidents, such as documented for the 2012 Richmond Chevron fire.
The tar sand diluent itself adds significant risk: it is a highly flammable solvent that tends to separate from the heavier mixture during travel. In a derailment this could cause an explosive fire with a uniquely hazardous tar sands smoke plume. The diluted tar sands mixture would tend to rapidly sink very deep into the soil, with the diluent eventually evaporating and then leaving the tar sands bitumen deep underground.
A significant tar sands spill, in places like the environmentally sensitive Feather River Canyon, the Delta or the Suisun Marsh would be impossible to clean up. This was proven in Michigan's 2010 Kalamazoo River Enbridge pipeline rupture, which will never be remediated, despite the spending of over 1 billion dollars to date. Nearby public infrastructure needs to be considered from a public health perspective; for example, East Bay MUD and others are doing a brackish delta water desalination pilot study near Pittsburg.
We must deny Valero the CBR permit and help keep the world's absolutely dirtiest oil in the ground. To do so would comply with the expressed wishes of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments composed of six counties and 22 municipalities up-rail from Valero who have also asked that this project be denied. Our massive turnout at the Planning Commission hearings achieved our first step in this goal with a unanimous vote of the Planning Commission to deny the land use permit. Now we must continue our opposition to insure the full Benicia City Council follows this path.
Charles Davidson, Hercules CA, Charlesdavidson@me.com