By Roger Straw
MANY THANKS TO BENICIA HERALD REPORTER Donna Beth Weilenmann for her detailed report, “Valero rail project: City has no control over oil source” (June 12). It is unfortunate that City Manager Brad Kilger is quoted saying, “The city does not have the authority to control the refinery’s crude sources.”
The source of Valero’s crude is important — here in Solano County, and globally. Since the city can’t control it, perhaps those of us who live here should persuade our friendly giant Valero to stay away from Canadian tar-sands oil of its own volition.
The world is dying, not so slowly, from the burning of fossil fuels. The most polluting of these fuels is mined in Alberta, Canada, where investors are extracting a thick, tar-like substance called “bitumen” from deep layers of sand. This sludge is blasted out of the sand with heated water. Millions of gallons of water are used daily, which first must be heated by natural gas, so the process is not energy efficient and can never be truly competitive with regard to “return on investment” after all costs are factored.
Moreover, additional costs are too often not accounted for — in particular the destruction of miles and miles of pristine northern boreal forests, and in their place the creation of a hellish network of open pit mines, wells, roads, pipes and hundreds of toxic “lakes” from the water used in the extraction process. The destruction has expanded to an area larger than Ohio or Pennsylvania.
Next comes the problem of creating a “blend” of crude oil from the tar-like bitumen that is fluid enough to be transportable by pipeline (Keystone XL), or now by rail. The gazillion-dollar heated railroad cars, we are told by Mr. Kilger, who cites a study paid for by Valero, are “specifically designed not to rupture,” and the city, county, state and feds are all well-prepared to take care of any emergency.
Sure. Tell that to the residents who live near Kalamazoo, Mich., where my daughter was born. We have friends and family nearby there, and their story of leaked tar-sands crude is horrific. After spending more than $765 million on a three-year cleanup there, the Kalamazoo River is still plagued by sunken heavy balls of tar-sands bitumen, threatening habitat, wildlife and human health. For background, see “April Flooding Could Affect Cleanup of 2010 Michigan Oil Spill,” by David Hasemyer:
“Removing dilbit (diluted bitumen) from water is more difficult than removing conventional oil because the chemicals used to thin the bitumen gradually evaporate, while the bitumen sinks to the river bottom.”
Imagine that gunk flowing into our Suisun Marsh after a train derailment — what would that look like? For an idea, read InsideClimate News’ Pulitzer Prize-winning authors’ “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of,” about “a project that began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.”
We in Benicia — including our neighbors in positions of influence at Valero — need to do some very important homework and ask a lot of questions before this new crude-by-rail project is approved. Imagine a disaster here, or better yet, imagine no opportunity for one. The hearing at the Planning Commission is set for July 11. Comments should be sent by July 1 to City Manager Brad Kilger at City Hall, 250 East L St., Benicia, or by email to email@example.com.
Roger Straw is a Benicia resident.