Baykeeper Update

New Law Expands Oil Spill Protections for State’s Waters and Wildlife

In a major victory for protecting California waterways from oil spills, a new state law will provide the state’s rivers, lakes, and creeks with oil spill protections previously given only to the state’s coastal waters. The law also ensures continued funding for the California agency that rescues wildlife injured by an oil spill. San Francisco Baykeeper helped orchestrate the passage of the bill.

The expanded protections are especially critical now, because the danger of oil spills into the state’s inland waters is rising as more oil is shipped into the state over land by rail. There are 7,000 locations in California where railroad tracks cross over a water body. Last year in the US, more than a million gallons of crude oil was spilled as a result of rail accidents.

The bill, SB 861, which went into effect July 1, addresses the threat of inland oil spills by significantly expanding the scope of the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). OSPR has worked previously to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spills, but only in California’s coastal waters. OSPR’s spill readiness and cleanup programs will now also cover the state’s inland waters.

Baykeeper holds a position on OSPR’s Technical Advisory Committee, and we will help strategize how best to protect inland waters from the oil onslaught. We will particularly focus on high-risk rail corridors that parallel sensitive rivers in San Francisco Bay’s watershed.

“Before now, California has successfully implemented a contingency planning process for oil spills in the state’s coastal areas. With this new law, that process will be replicated throughout the state,” said Baykeeper Executive Director Deb Self. “We’ll be able to identify ecologically sensitive areas, and plan advance strategies for protection and response, for all California waterways threatened by the increased risk of a spill.”

The law also secures funding to keep open the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, the California agency that rescues, cleans, and cares for wildlife injured by an oil spill. The network is a national leader in oiled wildlife care, but for several years, a funding shortfall has meant it might have had to close. The new law ensures funding for the network to respond in case of an oil spill.

In addition, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network previously responded only to wildlife injured in oil spills along the California coast. Now, it will also rescue wildlife in case of an oil spill in the state’s rivers, creeks, and other inland waters.

The new oil spill protections are funded by a 6.5-cent fee on every barrel of oil entering California. Previously, fees were levied only on oil arriving by sea on tankers. This legislation expands the fee to all oil as it enters California refineries, whether by tanker, pipeline, or rail. 

Most of the oil being shipped into the Bay Area by rail is the explosion-prone light crude from the vast Bakken fields in North Dakota. Extremely dirty heavy crude oil from the Canadian tar sands also arrives by rail.

While no oil is currently imported into California by pipeline, a huge network of underground pipes transports oil within the state, posing a substantial risk to our waters. Harmful spills have already occurred. In 2004, a Kinder Morgan pipeline under Suisun Bay ruptured, spilling 124,000 gallons of oil into wetlands, killing migratory ducks and other wildlife.

Baykeeper has been working on several fronts to protect San Francisco Bay and its wildlife from the threat of increased shipping of oil in and out of the region:

We also have a long history of improving oil spill protections for San Francisco Bay. Baykeeper was a lead responder to the Cosco Busan oil spill of November 2007 that released 53,000 gallons of heavy fuel into the Bay. Since then, Baykeeper has played a key role in improving oil spill response policy in the Bay Area, California, and across the country. We will keep working to ensure that San Francisco Bay has the best possible protections to prevent oil spills, and the best achievable cleanup when spills occur.