Get ready for more trains.
Kern County has approved the expansion of two of its three existing or proposed oil terminals that would increase the amount of oil moving by train by 620 percent.
This has the potential to be both a good and a bad thing.
First the good. California due to its location and its need for specialized refineries to meet air quality standards is not benefitting from lower gas prices triggered by America’s shale oil boom While the fracking revolution has reduced the nation’s oil imports from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other countries by 30 percent since 2004 for the rest of the United States, California imports have jumped 33 percent during the same time frame.
Oil costs $15 more per barrel from overseas and the North Slope in Alaska than it does from domestic sources in the Lower 48 states.
There is no pipeline that crosses the Rockies into the West to carry crude oil. At the same time, just 1 percent of California’s monthly oil needs — 500,000 barrels — is now moved by rail. Eight planned oil terminals throughout the state could push that amount to 15 million gallons a month or a third of California’s oil use.
It costs $12 a barrel to move oil by train from the Bakken oil fields to California.
That translates into $3 less per barrel. By tapping into North Dakota crude, California drivers could benefit at the pump.
Currently Kern County terminals have the capacity to handle 57 tank cars of oil a day. If all of the proposed expansion is completed, the oil terminals could handle 357 tank cars a day. Each tanker holds an average of 700 barrels of crude oil.
The most direct route from the Bakken oil fields to Kern County is via Donner Pass using the Union Pacific. That would bring significantly more oil tanks cars through Lathrop, Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Ceres, and Turlock.
Santa Fe serves Kern County from the southeast.
Should all plans go forward in Kern County and Union Pacific moves the crude, it creates the potential for three 100-car oil trains a day.
That would be on top of intermodal train traffic where truck trailers are carried on flat cars that is expected to increase as UP expands their Lathrop terminal.
Up until the surge in shale oil production a strong argument could be made that shipping crude and dangerous chemicals by rail is substantially safer than by truck for miles covered.
But recent crude oil train derailments and explosions have upset that premise. Shale oil crude has turned out to be more volatile than regular crude. There has been a push to retrofit existing tank cars or deploy new ones that are less susceptible to exploding in a train derailment.
An oil train derailment in Quebec last year killed 47 people.
That’s why increased oil movement by rail makes many people nervous for obvious reasons.
That said a lot of potential explosive and toxic materials move daily through the Valley by rail.
And 26 years ago Manteca had a train derailment involving several tankers carrying toxic chemicals in the early morning fog that forced the evacuation of over 2,000 people.
Moving goods whether it is oil or a truckload of potato chips is never without risk.
Union Pacific’s has a fairly impressive safety record and routinely monitors and upgrades their main line through the San Joaquin Valley.
Also, surrounding fire agencies do joint drills in case the unthinkable happens.
Even so local elected officials need to start thinking about a couple of things. Increased train traffic — whether it is oil trains, regular freight trains or intermodal trains — means more waiting at crossings. More waiting usually means more impatient motorists — a primary ingredient for train disasters.
At the same time Altamont Corridor Express is pushing to extend passenger train service to Modesto, Turlock and eventually Merced. The original 2018 timetable now looks a tad ambitious. But sometime in the relatively near future it can happen.
And because of that, Manteca’s elected leaders need to lobby hard to make sure ACE goes with a plan to double tracks between Modesto and Lathrop.
It reduces scheduling conflicts for freight, oil and passenger movements. And it also will somewhat reduce waiting times at crossings. Currently, it isn’t uncommon for twice a day for trains to block the Austin Road and Industrial Park Road crossings for 15 to 20 minutes while waiting for a train to pass.
Given the potential for eight passenger trains a day between Modesto and Lathrop once the ACE extension is up and running and even more when it connects with high speed rail at Merced to ferry passengers between there and Sacramento, double tracking becomes essential.
This is not one of those “we can wait to see what happens” things. The coming of more oil trains is a clear signal Manteca needs to start pursuing those in charge of planning the ACE extension to make sure the route through Manteca is double tracked not just for safety’s sake but also to make taking rail a viable commuting alternative.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.