Time To Stop All Oil Drilling in California

May 22nd, 2015 | Posted by

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, we used to take regular camping trips to nearby state parks. Usually it was to a state beach. As we lived in Orange County, we often visited San Onofre, or San Clemente, sometimes Doheny.

One of my favorite trips, however, was up the coast to Refugio State Beach, on the pristine Gaviota Coast beyond Santa Barbara.

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With no development out there on that part of the coast, it’s a perfect place to spend a week camped out by the waves, in the warm California sun.

Or, it was a perfect place. Unfortunately, there is actually some development on the coast: oil. There’s not only offshore drilling, there is onshore drilling. And the oil drilled offshore is pumped onshore through a series of pipes.

In 1969 one of these pipes ruptured underwater, causing a massive spill that ranks only behind the Deepwater Horizon spill and the Exxon Valdez spill in size. As a result, no new offshore oil drilling has since been allowed in California.

But the existing operations continue. Some oil is actually drilled onshore. Most oil is drilled offshore and piped onshore to a processing facility, like ExxonMobil’s Las Flores Canyon site. Pipes along the coast carry the crude to refineries. And it’s one of these pipes that ruptured on Tuesday.

While the spill is not yet as large as the 1969 spill, the effect has been devastating:

By land and by sea, cleanup crews descended Wednesday morning on the Gaviota Coast as the major oil spill from the day before grew to cover nine miles of ocean along the shoreline. Initial estimates put the spill at approximately 21,000 gallons, but officials now fear as many as 105,000 gallons of crude oil may have leaked from the broken underground pipe operated by Plains All American Pipeline. Responders are still working to pin down the exact figure and to determine how much oil seeped into the ocean.

The oil sheen has quickly spread down the coast from the spill site just west of Refugio State Beach; yesterday’s estimate put the oil slick, which has now split into two separate slicks, at four miles long with expectations it would only spread another two to four miles.

Just as the 1969 oil spill led to a ban on new offshore drilling, the 2015 spill should lead to the end of oil drilling in California. Completely.

That should begin with coastal drilling operations, which ought to end immediately. 40,000 barrels of oil are drilled each day off California’s coast, compared to 524,000 barrels drilled onshore. While there would be an economic impact of shutting down the coastal drilling, the impact of oil spills, as well as a warming climate (such as the worst drought in decades) has an even bigger economic impact.

Over the next few years California should then wind down production of the onshore fields, most of which are in Monterey and Kern counties. Of course, fracking should at long last be immediately banned as well. It is essential for California’s natural environment, as well as its future climate, that the remaining oil stay in the ground.

That’s the supply side. California also needs to reduce the demand for oil. The California high speed rail project would save between 2 million and 3 million barrels of oil in California each year starting in 2030. Adding in new connecting transit in the state’s cities would help save even more oil.

California needed to move beyond oil even before Tuesday’s spill. But the oil spill is an urgent call for the state to act now. It’s not enough to ban new drilling. The state must do everything in its power to shut down current drilling.

Will Texas Legislature Kill High Speed Rail?

May 21st, 2015 | Posted by

The fate of the Texas Central high speed rail project rests on “intense negotiations” now taking place in Austin:

Tucked in Page 682 of the budget passed by the Senate in April is Rider 48, a provision that would bar the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any state funds toward “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

The budget rider is one of several efforts by some Republican lawmakers to stop Texas Central Railway’s plan to build a high-speed rail line that would travel between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes, reaching speeds of 205 mph.

Texas Central has vowed to not take public operating subsidies. Nonetheless, company officials say the rider would kill the train because TxDOT, as the state agency in charge of transportation, would need to play a role in the project’s construction.

“If enacted the rider would constrain TxDOT’s ability to work with Texas Central Partners to perform important public safety duties,” the company argues on a website it launched this week to rally public support against the rider.

The Texas Tribune article suggests that there is room for a compromise here, though I’m not entirely sure how you cut a deal between a side that says “build high speed rail” and a side that says “kill high speed rail.”

As a supporter of the Texas HSR project I am hopeful that a deal is struck that allows the plan to go forward. But this is another way that Texas is proving important truths about HSR opposition.

For the last six years the media has argued that high speed rail projects get into trouble when they have large budgets, or ask for lots of public money, or piss off people living near the route, or have supposedly flawed ridership projections, or have poor outreach.

The Texas example shows that the truth is much simpler. High speed rail projects get into trouble when their fate depends on a Republican legislative body.

California’s HSR project lives because Democrats control the state legislature and the governor’s office. If that was not the case, the HSR bonds would never have made it to the ballot in 2008, and a Republican Congress’s decision to cut off any new funds would have dealt a fatal blow to the project.

The future of Texas HSR depends on a bunch of Republicans in Austin. I do not envy them.

UPDATE: Good news: The Texas Legislature has removed the provision that threatened the bullet train.

$500 Million for HSR in Jerry Brown’s Budget

May 16th, 2015 | Posted by

Yesterday Governor Jerry Brown issued the May revise to his 2015-16 proposed budget, and it includes $500 million for high speed rail:

Securing annual funding for high-speed rail — which was awarded $250 million in the last budget and stands to receive $500 million in the next — was a key victory for Brown.

“It’s helping to leverage private-sector interest,” said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the statewide project.

The money arrived when state cash was needed to match federal funding for the project but voter-approved bonds to finance it were tied up by lawsuits.

From last July through March of this year, almost every dollar of the nearly $200 million spent on the bullet train has come from the cap-and-trade program.

Kudos to Governor Brown as well as to Democratic leaders in the Legislature for sticking with cap-and-trade and making sure that HSR gets a significant portion of the money. Given Congress’s appalling opposition to passenger rail, California is going to have to go it alone for a while in building HSR. Cap-and-trade is a key piece of getting the funding in place to finish the project.

Amtrak Crash Puts Spotlight on Rail Infrastructure Needs

May 13th, 2015 | Posted by

At least five people are dead and dozens injured after an Amtrak Northeast Regional train derailed last night near Philadelphia. This wasn’t a high-speed Acela train, but the crash occurred on the same Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor tracks that the Acela uses.

Yonah Freemark has joined others in suggesting that the lack of positive train control on this section of track contributed to the crash:

Amtrak is planning to install PTC on the remainder of the NEC this year – obviously not in time to save the lives of those who died in the crash. But if the crash was caused by a train that sped into the curve, it would be reminiscent of a far deadlier rail disaster – the Santiago de Compostela disaster that took place in Spain in July 2013. That crash occurred when the operator failed to slow down while entering a curve, on a section of track that had not been upgraded to PTC.

There is of course no reason as of yet to suspect operator error in the Amtrak crash. But now is definitely the time to ask whether funding cuts to Amtrak delayed the implementation of PTC – especially when House Republicans are proposing big cuts to Amtrak just hours after the crash took place:

The measure includes $1.1 billion for the passenger railroad next year. That’s a $251 million cut from current levels. President Barack Obama requested almost $2.5 billion, much more than his previous proposals. Obama’s proposed boost is mostly dedicated to capital investment in track, tunnels and bridges and includes $400 million in grants for capital construction along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor.

President Obama understands what the NEC needs for safety and for improved service. Republicans should follow suit and give him the full funding request, as last night’s crash is a tragic reminder of the need for better rail infrastructure in this country.

UPDATE: A new report highlights a recent Senate vote to delay the PRIIA PTC mandate – and that California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer had both raised concerns in 2012 about the slow implementation of the PTC requirement.

And now the NTSB is saying that if PTC had been installed on these tracks, this crash would not have happened: