Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Smart, Green City: what it takes

The Chehalis River mouth is in Grays Harbor, near Aberdeen.

Grant Cooke: Benicia: Not exactly a smart, green city

By Grant Cooke, August 28, 2015 

THOMAS HOBBES, THE GREAT 16TH-CENTURY British political philosopher, wrote in “Leviathan” that humans living without legitimate government would eventually dissolve into a “state of nature.” This state of nature was brutish with violent chaos, evil discord and civil war. Legitimate government, Hobbes believed, had a “social contract” to wield power and authority.

Hobbes’ vision that governmental power be used for the moral good evolved into our current view that government, particularly on the local level, has a responsibility and obligation to protect and maintain the safety of its citizens. Which brings us to present-day Benicia and the return of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project as we anticipate the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR).

Under Hobbes’ social contract, it is the obligation of local government to maintain public safety. Anything that presents a known risk of explosion or other significant health risk is not something that city government should tolerate. To willingly allow a project that presents a public danger to move forward is ridiculous. And to argue that the Crude-by-Rail Project (CBR) is safe is equally ridiculous. A quick Internet search reveals numerous examples of trains carrying Bakken crude derailing or exploding.

The fossil fuel industry has a clear record of putting profits above safety. We have ample local examples, from the Chevron fire in Richmond to the San Bruno natural gas explosion. With tens of thousands of oil cars carrying volatile crude into the Bay Area, one or more explosions is all but guaranteed to occur. We all know it’s just a role of the dice whether the explosion happens in Benicia or another town along the line.

The conversation will probably build with the release Monday of the RDEIR. No doubt, the discussion will be as heated as ever. Regardless, let’s put some broad strokes on the situation, as there are several factors to consider:
  • Firstly, the CBR is an effort by Valero to increase its business and, therefore, its profits. Unfortunately, for that to happen the city must risk its residents’ health and well-being. This is not in your interest.
  • Valero, an oil company, benefits from the CBR; the city doesn’t. The idea that Valero, or any for-profit fossil fuel company, is a “Good Neighbor” to Benicia is silly and na├»ve.
  • Benicia’s future, and the city’s future tax base, can no longer be dependent on heavy-carbon industries. The current tax revenue from the refinery is not sustainable, or even desirable.
  • The decline in costs for renewable energy will create an energy price deflation that will make oil non-competitive. Ali Al-Naimi, Saudis Arabia’s oil minister, told a climate conference in Paris in June that the world’s largest crude exporter will eventually sell solar power instead of crude. He also renewed the kingdom’s commitment to current levels of production, putting more pressure on U.S. oil producers and refiners.
  • Besides the global switch to renewable energy, our local refineries will be under growing pressure from regional air quality regulators to clean up their emissions. And as the international effort to make large emitters pay for their carbon releases grows, carbon taxes or offsets will cut into refinery profits.
  • Within a decade or so, Valero and most Bay Area refineries will be shuttered. We need to begin discussions with Valero about what happens when they shut down. How will the refinery pay for the site cleanup and residual hazardous waste?
  • Even as the tax stream from Valero declines, Benicia, like most California cities, is also facing exponentially rising retiree benefit costs. The revenue decline cannot be made up with increased resident taxes (as the base gets older, it is harder to raise taxes) — so Benicia will be forced to cut services.
  • Also likely: Benicia’s municipal services and government will merge with Vallejo’s or go to a regional model. The era of small, local government is ending for numerous reasons. Small city governments can’t achieve the cost efficiencies or employee productivity needed to keep pace with rising costs and retiree benefit obligations. Large organizations can make better use of technology and smart systems to improve productivity and increase efficiency.
  • Small city governments don’t have the resources needed to deal with the future’s looming problems. Valero’s CBR clearly shows how ineffective small cities like Benicia are in dealing with problems that overlap. The same is true as small cities are forced to confront the future’s critical problems of mitigating climate change, wealth inequality (poverty, homelessness, gang violence and terrorism), and restraining agglomeration and urban sprawl. For example, Benicia city government’s ongoing struggles to convert to a new information technology package. Or the City Council’s inability to address even simple environmental issues like eliminating the use of plastic bags, promoting renewable energy or endorsing a pro-environmental or sustainability position. If a city government can’t agree that reducing the number of plastic bags clogging up our landfills is a good thing, how can it promote community respect for the environment — or more complicated values like decency, tolerance or a respect for others?
* * *
FOR MANY REASONS, BENICIA IS AT A CROSSROADS, and its future is worrisome. As a city, we need to come to grips with the reality that the fossil fuel/carbon era is ending, and we have to turn to a pro-environmental, knowledge-based and sustainable economy.

For the past several months, I’ve been researching the world’s smart and green cities. Despite the heroic efforts of Benicia’s Community Sustainability Commission, I’m sad to say that my lovely hometown is neither.

I was reminded of this the other evening at a friend’s house that overlooked our bay. The view was beautiful, with the silvery-gray straits glowing in the declining sunlight. But when I looked closer, I saw trash along the waterline, and the water showed traces of oil and pollution in the shallows.

It was so much different than Copenhagen’s harbor. Did you know that the citizens of Copenhagen had the wherewithal a few years ago to clean centuries of pollution and trash out of their harbor? And that every summer, four major swimming areas along that city’s waterfront attract thousands of Danes and other Europeans to bask in the northern sun and swim in the harbor’s clean waters?

Can you imagine going for a swim in Benicia’s harbor?

Copenhagen’s clean harbor points to the sharp contrast in attitudes about the environment held by Europeans and Americans. After decades of neglect, Europe has come around and now takes pride in cleaning up its environment. Most European nations, reflecting the will of their citizens, are mindful of waste and diligently work to reduce carbon emissions. Hamburg, for example, is deeply worried that global warming will raise sea levels and create havoc with their harbor and lowlands. The city has carved out several green zones, added trees to absorb carbon and reduced auto traffic. In Scotland, over 40 percent of the country’s domestic energy use is supplied by renewable energy. Germany is striving for 100-percent renewable energy by mid-century.

But Benicia — a city that sits on the water — doesn’t seem to give a flip about potential flooding from warming seas, or the steady degradation of its remarkably beautiful environment. The lack of concern underscores the general sense shared by far too many Americans — particularly those involved in the carbon industries — who view our environment and atmosphere as one large garbage can.
Grant Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident and owner of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also co-author of “The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics.” His new book, “Smart Green Cities” will be published in 2016.

120-day public comment period requested for Grays Harbor DEIS

Saturday, August 29, 2015

By Shannen Kuest  @Shannen_SVH   Skagit Valley Herald

Several Washington community leaders sent a letter Friday to Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt and Gov. Jay Inslee requesting 120-day public comment periods for the proposed Shell Puget Sound Refinery rail unloading facility in Anacortes and the proposed Grays Harbor crude oil terminals.

The letter, which was also sent to Hoquiam City Manager Brian Shay and state Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon, urged officials to allow the longer comment periods for the draft environmental impact statements of the projects in order to give community groups more time to gather information.

The draft environmental impact statements have yet to be completed.

Among those signing the letter were Kelly Fox of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and Carolyn Gastellum of Protect Skagit.

The letter stated, “We are prepared to read the thousands of pages of documents, discuss them with our members and prepare informed testimony, but we need more time.”

Dahlstedt said county officials have read the letter and have received about 1,200 emails on the subject.

Comment periods for draft environmental impact statements are usually 21 days, Dahlstedt said.

“Ecology and the county have been looking at having a comment period about 42 days long, so double the norm,” he said. “The project has been public for more than six months, so it’s not like it popped up out of the blue and people haven’t had time to gather their materials.”

The letter said local leaders need the participation of community groups to make informed decisions.

The Shell rail unloading facility would allow the refinery to accept 100-car trains carrying about
60,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation.

When Shell Puget Sound Refinery announced plans for the facility in 2013, community members and local, state and federal officials raised safety and environmental concerns about transporting Bakken crude oil by rail to Anacortes.

— Reporter Shannen Kuest, 360-416-2145,,
Twitter: @Shannen_SVH,

Friday, August 28, 2015

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments*1000/train-derailment.jpg

In 2014, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown 
Lynchburg, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.

By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015  Repost from GOVERNING The States and Localities
                                 h/t Benecia Independent
When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.

The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.

“This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.

The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.

Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.

Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.

California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.

“The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”

Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.

In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.

Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Community Action: No Oil Terminals in Grays Harbor!

Please come help spread the word in Grays Harbor!    Updated below
 We'll see the DEIS announcement for the proposed Westway and Imperium oil terminals in the Vidette this week (Aug 26th), now is the time to hit the ground running!

Thurs, Aug 27th, Doorbelling in Aberdeen. We'll meet at the Furford Gathering Center (behind former Baskin Robins), 104 S Chehalis St., Aberdeen at 5pm -finish by 7:30pm

Running the Risk: Washington's Fight Against Crude By Rail
Thursday, Sept 3, 6:30pm
222 Columbia St NW, Olympia
Join us for a free community forum and discussion on the oil industry’s plan to build five new processing facilities in our state, and how oil transport threatens our community, our waterways, and our livelihoods.

Eric de Place, Sightline Institute, The Thin Green Line
Arthur R.D. Grunbaum, Friends of Grays Harbor, Talking Crude
Arnie Martin, Grays Harbor Audubon Society, Talking Crude
(Email  if you need a ride, or can give a ride)​

The DEIS will be released on August 31st.
Open houses and public hearings will be held on October 1 in Elma and October 8 in Aberdeen. Additional details will be released August 31 on the project website, .

Look for more details on Monday, August 31 through the LISTSERV on or the legal notice published in the Montesano Vidette on Thursday, August 27.

Updated- We will be holding 2 Workshops on writing your best comment:
Sept 16th Wed 6pm How to Craft an Effective Comment WorkShop. (Furford Gathering Center 104 So Chehalis St, Aberdeen) Led by Jessie Dye & Jessica Zimmerle of Earth Ministries. Jessie was a speaker at our June 10th Forum and has participated in many EIS precedures.

Sept 19th Sat 1:30pm-3:30pm How to Craft an Effective Comment WorkShop. (Hoquiam Timberland Library Meeting Room, downstairs 429 7th St, Hoquiam) Led by Dan Serres of Columbia River Keepers.

Learn how to craft your best message for your comment!

Please share this on Facebook and with your friends and neighbors!