Sacramento region’s crude oil concerns hinge on Benicia council

Local activists ask elected officials to block Valero’s plan to ship oil by train

Thirty-four Sacramento and Davis residents traveled by bus to Benicia on April 4 to protest plans by Valero to build a facility that would allow it to ship 50 to 100 cars of crude oil by rail each day.

Benicia’s planning commission unanimously opposed the project on February 11, despite city staff’s recommendation. The Benicia City Council could vote on Valero’s appeal as soon as April 18.

Scores of local organizations, from environmental group 350 Sacramento to the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, oppose the project because it would bring crude-packed trains through downtown Sacramento and other Northern California cities.

“That’s not OK to put so many people at risk for a few people making profits,” said Laurie Litman, co-founder of 350 Sacramento.

Congress voted in December to end a 40-year ban on exporting crude oil.

Valero currently receives crude oil at its refinery by ships and barges at Benicia’s port and a pipeline across the Martinez Bridge, said Andres Soto of Communities for a Better Environment. Soto expressed concern about what will happen to the Benicia refinery’s port operations if it’s allowed to build the rail facility.

“We suspect that they may have a hidden agenda of trying to do oil exports out of the port operation, which is not part of this project,” he said.

Trains also allow refineries to access crude oil from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and Canadian tar sands that “are more volatile than typical crude,” said Chris Brown of the Sacramento Oil Trains Coalition.

Valero has argued that federal preemption laws for railways allow it to ship what it wants despite local concerns. Brown said those rules only apply to rail companies. Regardless, Brown and others expect Valero to sue if Benicia City Council votes against the company.

A Valero official, Chris Howe, defended his company’s plans to KCRA, saying, “There’s 30 million cars and light trucks on the road today, and we’re key to fueling that demand.”