New Law Expands Oil Spill Protections for State Waters

Jul 17, 2014

Threat of Oil Spills Rising as Shipment of Crude Oil by Train Skyrockets

Deb Self, Baykeeper Executive Director,, 415-856-0444 Ext. 102 (office), 510-882-1882 (mobile)

(San Francisco, CA) With the number of freight trains carrying crude oil skyrocketing in California, a new state law will provide the state’s rivers, lakes, and creeks with protection from oil spills previously given only to the state’s coastal waters.

The expanded protection is 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 more than 7,000 rail crossings over bodies of water in California. Last year in the US, more than a million gallons of crude oil was spilled as a result of rail accidents.

The budget trailer bill, Senate Bill 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 previously worked 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. Several other active bills, including SB 1319 (Pavley, D-Los Angeles), seek to further expand the agency’s regulatory authority over crude by rail.

San Francisco Baykeeper was a major player in the passage of SB 861. Through our position on OSPR’s Technical Advisory Committee, Baykeeper will help strategize how best to protect inland waters from the oil onslaught. We will especially 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 that are threatened by the increased risk of oil spills.”

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.

In addition, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network previously responded only to wildlife injured in oil spills along the California coast, but 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 on oil entering California. Previously, fees were levied only on oil arriving by sea via tanker. 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 from pipelines have already occurred. In 2004, a Kinder Morgan pipeline under Suisun Bay ruptured, spilling 124,000 gallons of oil into wetlands and 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. Our efforts have included fighting the expansion of the Valero refinery in Benicia, fighting the re-opening of a now-closed Pittsburg oil terminal, and advocating for a recently-passed Oakland City council resolution opposing the shipment of oil by rail through that city.

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