The Fight to Stop Oil Trains in the US just Got a Whole Lot Bigger

April 21, 2016

In Benicia, California, a small town in the north San Francisco Bay Area, the fight to #StopOilTrains just became national.

Tuesday night, after four nights of public hearings, the Benicia City Council voted to delay their final decision on the proposed Valero oil train project. The delay allows Valero to pursue a ruling from the Surface Transportation Board, a little-known federal agency that primarily handles disputes between railroads, on the question of whether Benicia has the right to deny the Valero project because federal law prevents local and state government from regulating railroads. Valero is betting big that “federal preemption” will keep their project alive after the Benicia Planning Commission ruled unanimously to reject the project.

Federal preemption is century-old law that helped build the intercontinental rail system by ensuring that railroads were not tied up in conflicting state or local regulations or additional taxes and fees. The power to regulate and tax trains lies with the federal government. But Valero is not a rail company. And, as California Attorney General Kamala Harris made abundantly clear in her April 14 letter to the City Council:

“[Federal Interstate Commerce law] does not preempt or constrain the City’s discretionary decision-making authority where, as here, the City is exercising that authority with respect to a project undertaken by an oil company that is not subject to the jurisdiction of the Surface transportation Board (STB).”

That’s legalese for the highest law enforcement official in California saying that the Benicia City Council can and must decide. But AG Harris goes on:

“In fact, for Benicia to turn a blind eye to the most serious of the Project’s environmental impacts, merely because they flow from federally-regulated rail operations, would be contrary to both state and federal law.”

The Benicia City Council is being lobbied hard by Valero. They are also getting very bad advice from the city’s contract attorney Bradley Hogin, a lawyer with a long history of defending big oil. Hogin has acted throughout the hearings as if he is Valero’s attorney rather than representing the interests of Benicia citizens. But Benicia and its allies are watching closely. More than 1,200 Benicia residents and 3,000 allies from across California have spoken out against the project. The City Council made a bad decision, and the fight now moves beyond Benicia:

So what does the City Council’s 3-2 vote to delay the decision really mean?

For Benicia, it means that a decision on the Valero oil trains permit won’t happen until at least September. In the meantime, the Benicia City Council will continue to hear from citizens who are threatened by exploding oil trains, poisoned air, traffic, and noise pollution.

For up-rail communities like Sacramento and Davis, it means City Councils, school boards, unions, and campuses will continue to get involved and weigh in on the risk they will face from million-plus gallon crude oil trains moving through their downtowns and over their drinking water supplies.

For all 25 million Americans living in the blast zone, it means the fight to stop oil trains in Benicia has just become national, and the stakes could not be higher. The Valero argument that only the federal government can decide on oil trains takes takes away state and local authority to protect citizens from a deadly threat. Local and state officials have already weighed in — now it’s time for the Obama Administration to add their voice to the question of whether oil companies can claim the privilege of railroads.

Next Step. Valero will likely submit their petition to the Surface Transportation Board in the next month.

Valero thinks it can bully Benicia into accepting its dangerous oil trains plan — we will prove them wrong.

As climate champion Tom Steyer and Benicia Planning Commissioner Steve Young wrote in the Sacramento Bee, “there’s no place for extreme tar sands or Bakken crude in California’s emerging clean energy economy.” Stand with us to protect Benicia and communities everywhere!