17 News Special Report: Tracking in Oil

The transportation of crude by rail is about to jump dramatically. This would be crude that may be more flammable, more explosive than Kern's heavy oil with a path through some of Bakersfield's most populated areas.
Proposed Crude by Rail Projects
Proposed Crude by Rail Projects
Potential Rail Routes
Potential Rail Routes
Bakersfield Oil Pipelines
Bakersfield Oil Pipelines
BAKERSFIELD, CA -- You may not notice but everyday nearly 50 trains pass through Kern County. They carry automobiles, freight, lumber and occasionally crude oil. But the transportation of crude by rail is about to jump dramatically.

The concern is that this would be crude that may be more flammable, more explosive than Kern's heavy oil with a path through some of Bakersfield's most populated areas.

So we asked the question, are these projects safe job makers or are we about to send ticking time bombs through Bakersfield?

On July 6th, 2013 there was one of the deadliest train crashes in Canadian history. Train cars carrying oil derailed in a tiny town in Quebec leveling buildings and killing 47 people.

On October 19th, 2013 13 oil train cars exploded in Alberta Canada.

On November 8th, 2013 a derailment in rural Alabama sent flames 300 feet high.

December 30th, 2013 trains collide in North Dakota causing hundreds to evacuate the area.

That makes four explosions involving train cars in 6 months, all caused by different things but they all had one thing in common: they were all carrying oil from North Dakota's Bakken -- the much touted oil shale deposit.

"I think this is all popping to the top now because there are too many accidents," said David Hackett, an energy consultant with Stillwater and Associates in Irvine. "Four accidents like that are all too many."

Two proposed Kern County projects are planning to bring up to 290,000 barrels of oil a day in the area, 29 times the crude currently coming into the state by rail, all because of increased oil production in the midwest.

"Production in North Dakota and Texas has been rather dramatic," said Gordon Schremp, the Sr. Fuels Specialist for the California Energy Commission. "Crude oil in the United States has increased by 2.5 million barrels per day but there's been a problem created. There's not enough pipeline capacity to take advantage of that rapid increase in crude oil production."

But there is plenty of rail. A project near Taft is already underway. Although Plains All American staff would not give us an on camera interview, they explained they plan to initially take in 70,000 barrels a day and possibly up to 140,000 barrels in the future. That would be up to two trains with 100 cars full of oil.

"140,000 barrels per day is enough to run one of California's medium sized refiners," said Hackett.

The oil will be offloaded and shipped through pipelines to refineries in either L.A. or the Bay Area, creating more than 60 local permanent positions and about 200 construction jobs.

The second project is less certain. It's proposed at the Alon refinery, just south of Rosedale Highway. While no one from the company would speak about the project, the environmental impact report submitted to the county says the refinery wants to expand its rail capacity, bringing in 150,000 barrels of oil a day to be either refined in house or shipped through pipelines already here to ship California crude.

"Kern County is the epicenter of pipeline distribution for crude oil," said Schremp. "Three pipelines going to northern California refineries two to southern California refineries. So it makes perfect sense to put them here at the point where these pipelines originate."

The crude could come to Kern from either the north or the south, depending on where the oil is produced. But both directions take the oil right into town through Bakersfield neighborhoods traveling at max 50 miles per hour.

This would send about 4 more trains through Bakersfield a day, making signals all that more common and train horns more likely, possibly at night.

"Trains operate 24 hours a day so there's a lot of train activity that occurs at night so if they come through at night you won't see them but you know if you're there at a crossing and they come through you'll have to stop," said Schuler.

While neither project will say where they'll get their oil, consultants do not question it will come from the midwest.

"From all over the midcontinent, crude will show up here," said Hackett.

This includes North Dakota's Bakken crude. Recently the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sent out a warning, "that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable." Hackett has a theory on that.

"They don't have a market for the lighter more flammable components of crude oil that would be propane and butane," said Hackett.

Hackett estimates that means companies are likely not separating those components out of the crude before shipment.

"If you are in the middle of North Dakota you've got nowhere to put it but in the crude so that's why it's more flammable than people would expect," said Hackett.

But Hackett believes by the time the Kern projects go online, the problem will be fixed.

"I bet it happens next year. I bet it happens soon because there's more crude to move by rail out there," said Hackett.

The Kern County Fire Department said it is not specifically preparing for these projects. But said it does practice train safety on rail cars annually.

"We train across the board on every kind of eventuality that we can possibly think of and I think that we as an organization are very prepared to deal with anything we are faced with," said Sean Collins of the Kern County Fire Department.

Railroad companies involved in the Taft project (Union Pacific, BNSF, and the San Joaquin Valley Railroad) say they are working to make their lines crude ready.

"If this Plains All American project comes online there are a number of things that will have to take place as far as infrastructure and we are part of those conversations," said Aaron Hunt of Union Pacific.

There's also a concern about the construction of the tankers that carry crude by rail. They're called DOT 111's. In March of 2012, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board crafted new safety guidelines that would include double hulled cars to make them more puncture resistant but the Department of Transportation has yet to adopt the measures.

"There's some kind of a mismatch of the design of the rail cars and the products they're putting on them," said Hackett.

In addition to this concern, there is also an excitement among industry insiders who said these two projects could decrease the state's dependence on foreign oil and possibly lower gas prices.
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