Crude oil and coal by rail through Albany?

At the March 2 meeting, The council voted on Resolution no. 2015-10. I was the only council member to vote against. The resolution was a long and rambling list of concerns about rail transport of coal and crude oil. As a young man, I spent two summers working on the Alaska Railroad. It was obvious to me that the local environmental groups who wrote the resolution didn’t really understand much about railroads. I’m no expert, either, but at least I’m aware of that.

Just to establish my street cred, or maybe my rail cred, here are a few photos of my workplace and colleagues just inside the southern boundary of Denali Park in the summer of 1976.


IMG_4814What I found bothersome about the vote was that there was no effort on the part of the council to verify the statements in the resolution. Just because you stick a “whereas” in front of a statement and vote yes, it doesn’t make the statement true. The council had some obligation to verify the truthfulness and reasonableness of statements that it approved. Yet it failed to do that.

All of this reminded me far too much of the old Berkeley city council that was justifiably ridiculed for having its own foreign policy, and for voting on national and international issues for which it had no jurisdiction and no expertise. Likewise, Albany neither has any jurisdiction over railroads, nor does the city have any expertise, and the resolution was not accompanied by any staff report.

This sort of sloppy activism has no place in a city council meeting. It reminded me of lunacy and years of delay in getting cell phone service in our town. (Note: There is a silver lining to this story. City staff did find an authoritative source of information on the issue of oil shipments and rail safety, but you’ll have to wait until the end of this post to find out what it is).

Here is the resolution:


I disagree with this resolution. It’s too vague and overreaching. If we want to put “fossil fuel materials” like gasoline in our cars, they’ve got to get to our local gas stations somehow. As a general rule, I’d rather see fossil fuel materials transported by rail than by road. The safety record for Bay Area railroads is quite good. Our road safety record–not so good.

A few of the statements in the resolution refer to the shipment of coal. I think coal is irrelevant, since it is unlikely that we will see large shipments of coal coming to the Port of Oakland, which is busy, land-constrained and designed for containerized cargo. Here are three statements in from the resolution and my thoughts about them:

WHEREAS, a Federal Surface Transportation Board proceeding regarding the Transportation of coal by rail found that coal dust can destabilize rail tracks and can contribute to train derailments

 WHEREAS, coal and petcoke are commonly transported via open-top rail cars and a large volume of those materials escape during transit, contaminating urban areas, farmland, and waterways across California with coal dust, petcoke and chunks of coal;

 WHEREAS, coal and petroleum coke contain toxic heavy metals – including mercury, arsenic, and lead – and exposure to these toxic heavy metals in high concentrations is linked to cancer and birth defects in humans and can be harmful to fish and wildlife

Coal is a very dirty source of energy, and produces about double the amount of carbon dioxide per unit of energy than natural gas. However, the problem with coal is burning it, not shipping it. Toxic metals can be injected into the atmosphere in particulate form, where they settle onto the ocean surface and are concentrated in the ocean food chain, contaminating top predators like tuna with high levels of mercury.

Concerns about coal transport are driven by shipments from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to China. China has coal reserves of its own, but it is currently cheaper to ship coal from ports on the western edge of North America than it is to develop coal mining and rail infrastructure to ship it from western China to industrial areas much further east. China also buys large quantities of coal from Australia.

Coal dust can be a problem, but the destabilization of the roadbed ballast occurs in loading at mines and unloading at ports, where coal dust is heaviest. Coal dust destabilization on open rail is much less of a concern, especially when coal shipments have been properly treated.

There are ways to mitigate coal dust in transport. The railroad companies don’t like coal dust any more than anyone else, since much of it falls on their tracks and other property. Burlington Northern Santa Fe has been working with the federal regulatory agencies to reduce coal dust. New regulations require shippers to mitigate dust by 85 percent.

Here is a law review article that, unlike the city council’s resolution, is well-referenced.

The reality is that plans do not call for major coal shipments to California ports, but to ports in the Pacific Northwest. Some information is here from an anti-coal shipping advocacy organization in Pacific Northwest.

The Port of Oakland, a major container port, seems uninterested in coal.

The link here is from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad which discusses the problems with coal dust and their efforts to mitigate it.

In summary, I think fears of long coals trains rolling through Albany, spewing coal dust, are unfounded.


Now, as for the statements in the resolution about crude oil shipments, let’s get some facts in play:

One barrel of oil contains 42 gallons.

A typical fully loaded tanker car contains 700 barrels, but estimates vary between 600 and 800 barrels depending on the type of tanker.

A typical tanker car is a little more than 50 feet long.

A 100-car train is about one mile long.

A train consisting of cars of only one type is called a unit train. A train with mixed cars and mixed cargo is called a manifest train.

A one-mile train traveling at 15 mph requires 4 minutes to pass a given point, and one traveling at 20 mph requires three minutes, although automatic crossing gates can add a few minutes to these times.

Now back to the statements in the resolution. Here’s a good place to start:

WHEREAS, new technologies have resulted in the development of unprecedented amounts of both domestic and foreign oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products and derivatives, which will significantly increase the volume of petroleum products moving by rail

The price of crude has fallen from around $100/barrel to less than $50/barrel during the last several months. This mostly due to geopolitics and economics, see this and this.

Some of the oil coming in by rail to California is from the Bakken shale of North Dakota. At these prices, it is not clear how much of oil production from Bakken will continue to be profitable.

It’s unlikely we’ll continue to see skyrocketing levels of output, a least until prices begin to rise. Saudi Arabia can profitably pump oil at prices below $10/barrel, and the Saudis seem to be testing just how low prices have to fall before U.S. producers are shut out.


WHEREAS, hauling crude oil, coal and petcoke into California involves traversing some of the most challenging mountain passes in the nation, greatly increasing the probability of serious accidents.

Well, not in California anyway. For rail, there is only one “challenging mountain pass” in California, at Donner Summit alongside Highway 80 near Truckee. Most California railways run north/south, and crude oil shipments do not have to pass over Donner Summit.

As for the serious accidents reported in Canada and the U.S., none of them have occurred in “challenging mountain passes.”


WHEREAS, the last few years have seen a dramatic rise in transport of crude by rail nationwide – the volume of crude by rail shipments in Northern California increased by 50 percent in 2013 alone – accompanied by a similar rise in accidents, nearly 100 in 2013

Good information on transportation of crude oil and ethanol is available from the state of California:

In 2014, six million barrels of crude oil flowed into California by rail. That an impressive number, but if you calculate it in terms of tanker cars per week (divide by 700 barrels per car and then by 52 weeks per year), the result is 165 tanker cars per week. Think of that as two 83-car trains per week, for the whole state of California.

This traffic is dwarfed by the amount of ethanol shipped to California by rail. The latest figures are for 2010, when the economy was in recession. Shipments of ethanol have very likely grown significantly since then. In 2010, California refineries used 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol, 88 percent of it shipped by rail. By volume, that is more than five times the amount of crude shipped by rail in 2014. Ethanol is used to replace MTBE, a fuel additive that was banned. Ethanol is now blended at about ten percent by volume into California gasoline, to help meet the federal renewable fuel standards (RFS).

Shipments of crude oil to California are refined into specially formulated, clean-burning gasoline to meet our state’s stringent air quality standards. Other heavier products are made as well (diesel, lubes, etc). The crude oil coming into the state is either shipped directly to refineries, or in shipped to depots where it is transferred to pipelines.

While there are refineries to the north of Albany in Richmond, Benicia and other points north and east, unit trains consisting only of up to 100 tanker cars do not need to travel through Albany to reach refineries. Trains do travel through Contra Costa County and through the Sacramento area. See this and this.

In short, rail shipments of crude oil into California are not overwhelming, typically do not pass through Albany, and they are dwarfed by rail shipments of ethanol. In addition, rail shipments are not likely to continue to rise significantly, as oil prices have fallen to below $50/barrel, and U.S. producers have higher production costs than Saudi Arabia.


Regardless of what freight is being shipped along U.S. railways, maintaining track safety and avoiding derailments is absolutely critical. As a rule, American transportation infrastructure is in a dismal statement state of repair, due mostly to the irresponsibility of our federal government and its failure to allocate enough resources to maintain public roads and bridges. For a good introduction to the topic, this report by Comedy Central’s John Oliver is simultaneously frightening and humorous. (Correction, April 15, 2015: John Oliver’s new show is on HBO.)

Here are two recent Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times that speak to the same issue (here and here).

Here is a link to a website devoted to the notorious DOT-111 tankers cars that are prone to rupturing in accidents.

On this website, at a link entitled “Staggering Increase in Oil Spills via Rail,” there is a useful interactive map of rail spills. California seems to be remarkably safe. The worse spill in our state in recent history, according to this website, was 20 gallons.

Nationally, railroads have spent $5 billion in recent years upgrading the rail system. In Alameda County, the railroad safety record is very good. Here is an informal summary, and here is a detailed searchable federal database.

I encourage readers to search the online database themselves. I think the conclusion is obvious that in Alameda County, the leading cause of railroad deaths is trains hitting people who are trespassing on railroad property.

Several derailments of ethanol trains have occurred, causing at least one explosion and a death. The infamous Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec was caused by runaway train carrying Bakken crude, which in turn was caused by a combination of poor engine maintenance and human error.


I do have some sympathy for the sentiments expressed below:

WHEREAS, trains delivering crude oil, coal and petcoke traveling through the Bay Area will follow routes adjacent to the San Francisco Bay Estuary and local creeks, and routes adjacent to the Sacramento River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, posing a serious threat to these ecosystems, and to California’s agricultural irrigation and drinking water supplies

As I mentioned in the March 2 city council meeting, the most environmentally damaging rail accident in California history occurred in 1991, when a railroad tanker car carrying a potent agricultural fumigant derailed and spilled its contents into the Sacramento River, decimating aquatic life in the river for years. Since then the river has fully recovered.

The fundamental issue is rail safety, and not rail shipments of petroleum products. There are many sorts of chemicals and commodities shipped by rail, derailments are always dangerous, and all rail shipments should be safe.

Here’s a statement in the resolution that I find problematic:

 WHEREAS, the City of Albany is deeply concerned about the threat to life, safety and the environment of potential spills and fires from the transport of petroleum by rail  

Think about this way: Crude oil is shipped by rail to California refineries, where it is refined into highly flammable and explosive gasoline. This highly flammable and explosive material is loaded onto tanker trucks and shipped by freeways and other roads, some of them in our neighborhoods, to small repositories called gas stations where this flammable petroleum material is stored in large underground tanks. There has been at least one local terrible freeway accident involving a gasoline tanker truck.

Personal transportation vehicles are driven to these gas stations and this extremely flammable and explosive liquid is pumped into small tanks very near the passenger compartments that often hold children. These vehicles are driven in dangerous conditions on road and freeways, resulting in collisions and other accidents.

The resulting death toll is tremendous—more than 30,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone, even after dramatic improvements in automobile safety equipment, including safety belts and air bags.

By comparison to these transportation risks, the risks from railway accidents are relatively low.


As I mentioned at the start of this note, there is a silver lining. By the time of the March 16 meeting, the staff had identified a reputable source of information, The League of California Cities. The league has thoughtfully researched this issue, and has published an article in their Western Cities magazine.

The league had also created a model letter to be submitted by California cities to federal agencies and legislators. The city staff did create a letter based on the league model, and the letter was included on the consent calendar of the March 16 meeting. It will be sent to our federal legislators and federal transportation officials.

I do have a few concerns about the letter and the magazine article. Both fail to take into account the recent drop in oil prices, and how they might affect rail shipments of crude into California. Cheaper middle-eastern oil typically enters our state on ships, not by rail. And the otherwise excellent article in the League’s Western Cities magazine fails to mention ethanol shipments at all.

For more on shipping flammable liquids, another reputable source of information is Chemical & Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society. Two recent articles discuss rail shipments of both crude oil and ethanol, both are worth reading (here and here).

The League of California Cities article quotes uncritically a statement from the California Energy Commission:

“Oil imports to California by rail shot up 506 percent to 6.3 million barrels in 2013 (one barrel equals 42 gallons). That number will climb to 150 million barrels by 2016, according to the California Energy Commission.”

506 percent over in what time period? One year? Five years? (Since I was one year old, my age has risen by almost 6,000 percent. Shocking!) The article fails to note that in 2014, the amount of crude by rail actually declined slightly. And the article also fails to point out that “150 million barrels by 2016” would be an increase by a factor of 25 in just a year or two. Statements like that should be taken with a degree of skepticism. It’s difficult to image the necessary infrastructure being built out and made operational that quickly.


To summarize, I dislike the type of shoddy, fear-mongering analysis that was put forward by local environmental groups that formed the basis of the council’s resolution on March 2. The danger is that this sort of “crying wolf” will lower the credibility of more thoughtful environmental advocates, especially those fighting climate change.

I think if we want to put gasoline in our cars, I’d rather see the crude oil come from domestic sources, since it creates jobs in the Unites States and reduces the amount of our dollars that the Saudis funnel to madrasas in the Middle East, where our dollars are used to teach radical fundamentalist ideas. That has been expensive for us, in terms of dollars and lost lives.

I’d rather see natural gas burned for energy than coal, even if the natural gas is the result of fracking. If the Bakken shale proves to be an economically viable source of crude and natural gas, I’d rather see those energy sources carried by pipelines rather than by rail. Pipelines are typically even safer and more energy-efficient than railroads.

In North Dakota, the Bakken shale was developed so quickly that there was no infrastructure put in place to capture natural gas, which instead was flared. This is an inexcusable waste, and the drop in oil prices may create an opportunity to build out badly needed natural gas infrastructure.

I urge Albany residents to keep your eyes open and observe our local freight trains. They are hard to hide, since the tracks run parallel to the freeway. How fast are the freight trains moving? Are they moving as fast as the cars on the freeway? You could have someone in your automobile count the number of railroad cars. Are all the cars of the same type (a unit train), or is the freight train made up of many different types of cars (a manifest train)?  I seriously doubt we’ll ever see a 100-car unit train hauling crude or ethanol through Albany, but it never hurts to stay vigilant.