Coal for export rejected by Oakland City Council

We know that American railroads ship coal, coke, ore (taconite, iron, copper) and oil, both in its unrefined (natural) and refined states by railcar loads, literally, tons of it. But, what you probably don’t know is that Association of American Railroads President and Chief Executive Officer Edward R. Hamberger boldly stated in 1998 in essence: The energy of this century, the 21st, is going to be fossil-fuel-based.1

In terms of shipping and income, coal is big business for American rail, the industry’s bread-and-butter commodity.

Coal_bituminous[1]Coal, a natural resource used in the production of energy, is mined, of course, and must be transported from origin to destination and this can involve truck, train and pipeline even (the coal in slurry form) on land and barge and sailing vessel on water. A certain percentage of that which is mined domestically is destined for overseas.

But what if a town that coal is to be moved through and exported from wants absolutely no part of and refuses to have any of it? What does it do?

If it’s Oakland California, many of its citizens opposed to the very idea, protest, voice their concerns about environmental damage coal traveling through town and then dumped and stockpiled on docks can potentially cause. It is this that a number of Oakland residents fear will occur. And, the worry isn’t unfounded, apparently.

In its July 20, 2016 press release: “Oakland City Council Takes Final Vote, Confirming Coal Ban: Victory: Community unites to ban what would have been the largest coal export facility in California,” Earthjustice shared, “Late last night, the Oakland City Council voted to confirm an ordinance that would ban coal from being handled and stored in the City of Oakland, including a resolution to apply the ordinance to the proposed Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal. With the second vote—following the first vote on June 27th—the ban is confirmed.”

A victory for one community for sure!

Providing background, Earthjustice related, “A portion of the former Oakland Army Base is being developed as a bulk export facility, known as the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT). CCIG, the developer, promised not [to] include coal as a commodity handled by the terminal, but then solicited a partnership with Utah counties that would have allowed the state to export up to 10 million tons of coal from their mines each year.

“A Utah funding body approved $53 million to buy space at Oakland Bulk Terminal for these exports. This deal was conducted behind the backs of the Oakland City Council and the Port, both of which oppose coal as a commodity for shipping in Oakland. Additionally, the developer promised residents that the city-owned port would be coal free.

“For over a year, community members and advocacy groups have voiced concerns over how this decision will affect the community’s health, safety, and the environment. According to a national train company, each open-top rail car of coal can lose up to one ton of dust between the mines and the port, resulting in the release of 60,000 pounds of toxic fine particulate matter in communities near the rails. Additionally, this deal would have stifled California’s strong commitment to cutting carbon pollution, especially as the state continues to suffer from extreme drought, forest fires, and other signs of climate disruption.”

Legitimate concerns, all.

Not an isolated case

This isn’t the first time we’ve been made aware of something like this happening. In “Two state governors question Northwest’s role in the export of domestic coal,” written was: “A comprehensive examination of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions must be undertaken and completed prior to any decision being made on whether or not U.S. Northwest ports can be set up for coal export to China. This, in effect, is what Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee expressed in a letter directed to the Council of Environmental Quality, information in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, ‘Govs to feds: Clear the air before exporting coal,’ revealed.

“The Seattle PI article’s author, Joel Connelly, further pointed out that the governors also in the letter asked if the U.S. should encourage the use of a fossil fuel that when ignited can pose a risk to public health, lead to the acidification of oceans and sea-level rise, and result in the more rapid melting of snow packs, etc.”

And, then there is this. In “Permitting of South Valley oil operation prompts lawsuit,” expressed in no uncertain terms is, “… [O]n Jan. 29, 2015, ‘[c]ommunity and environmental groups filed suit … over the expansion—orchestrated mostly in secret—of a crude oil operation in Kern County that could lead to a 1,000 percent increase in the amount of crude imported by rail into California each year,’ reported Earthjustice in the ‘Groups Sue to Stop Daily 100-Car Train Deliveries of Toxic Crude Oil to Bakersfield Terminal: Coalition sues over illegal permitting of major crude-by-rail project in Central Valley,’ press release. ‘The newly opened Bakersfield Crude Terminal in Taft, Calif., has the capacity to receive two 100-car unit trains a day of volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale formation as well as heavier, highly toxic tar sands.’

Unit train of oil tank cars
Unit train of oil tank cars

“The reason for the aforementioned legal challenge, in no uncertain terms, is this: ‘Today’s lawsuit was filed against the San Joaquin [Valley] Air Pollution Control District for the piecemeal permitting process that allowed one of the largest crude oil operations in California to expand largely in secret, without environmental review of the risks posed by importing millions of gallons a day of toxic, explosive oil from North Dakota and Canada,’ declared Earthjustice in the release.”

Bakersfield Crude Terminal
Bakersfield Crude Terminal

And, from the same article, add to that, this: “Earthjustice in the press release further observed: ‘In addition to dramatically increasing the risk to communities along the rail route, facilities such as the Bakersfield Crude Terminal are major sources of volatile organic compound emissions—a precursor to ozone air pollution. Breathing ozone is hazardous to respiratory health, and the San Joaquin Valley is one of two air basins in the United States designated ‘extreme nonattainment’ for federal ozone standards. The degraded state of the San Joaquin Valley’s air results in more than a thousand premature deaths each year, and one in six Valley children is diagnosed with asthma.’”


  1. Wes Vernon, “Special Report – Edward R. Hamberger: Gearing up for Rail’s Big Fight in 1999,” Expediter, RailNews Magazine, Dec. 1998, p. 12

Bottom, second from bottom images above: Elizabeth Forsyth, Earthjustice

– Alan Kandel