If This Town Can #StopOilTrains -- Any Town Can


Ethan Buckner, Stand.earth Extreme Oil Campaigner

Yesterday night, the Benicia City Council voted to unanimously deny Valero’s proposed oil trains project. If built, 100-car trains carrying millions of gallons of toxic, explosive crude oil would have rolled through dozens of California communities every day en route to Valero’s refinery - endangering the 5.5 million Californians who live within a mile of the tracks (otherwise known as the oil train blast zone).

This decision came only hours after the Surface Transportation Board (STB) - a little-known federal agency that primarily handles disputes between railroads - affirmed the City’s right to deny Valero’s project. Buoyed by the STB’s decision and the tremendous, unceasing opposition to oil trains among Benicia residents, the council did the right thing and sided with the community over Big Oil.

Here are some key lessons from what happened last night:

  • Communities everywhere can say no to dangerous oil trains projects: The STB’s decision has impacts far beyond the borders of Benicia, or even California. It means that refinery communities across the US considering whether or not to grant oil train permits to Big Oil will have the freedom to say NO. For decision makers sitting on the fence, this means no more hiding behind federal pre-emption. You’re either for oil trains in your community, or you’re against them. 

  • Organizing gets the goods, every time: This hard-fought victory belongs to the incredible grassroots leaders of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community. They’ve been at the helm every step of the way - mobilizing neighbors, holding community forums, canvassing door-to-door and at farmers markets, and being present at every public hearing and council meeting to make sure decision makers knew residents were paying attention. This isn’t exactly glamorous work, and it’s often overlooked by funders, but it’s critical and needs ongoing support. 

  • Frontline leadership matters: This effort was not led by environmental groups. Stand.earth, Communities for a Better Environment, Sierra Club, NRDC, and other allies played a tremendous role, but that role was to support the needs identified by Benicia’s grassroots leaders. This meant that we in the environmental community were able to leverage our skills, resources, and technical expertise in a strategic manner that aligned with the deep local knowledge, experience, and strategy coming from the grassroots. 

  • Uprail organizing works: It wasn’t only the people of Benicia who made last night’s victory possible. Attorney General Kamala Harris weighed in. Residents, elected officials, first responders, and other allies in communities all along the rail routes organized and sent letters urging the Benicia City Council to do the right thing, as their decision would directly affect their communities too! In all, uprail communities from Davis, Roseville, Sacramento and beyond held rallies, brought busloads of residents to hearings and organized their own municipalities to pressure the City of Benicia to do the right thing, and that had a major impact in both the Planning Commission and City Council’s decisions.

  • Anything is possible: There were countless times during the past three-plus years when we thought Valero was sure to win. “The City Council is too conservative,” we’d say to ourselves, or “Valero just has too much power in the City, it’s a refinery town after all.” But by being persistent, continuing to mobilize residents, gather petition signatures, show up at hearings, organize along the rail routes, write letters to the editor, and do all of the nitty-gritty work of a campaign, we were able to succeed. If Benicia, a town economically dominated by the Valero refinery, can stand up to Big Oil, any town can!

The fight to #StopOilTrains and protect our communities and our climate is not over. The tide is turning in our direction, and we will continue to build this movement until every drop of extreme oil is off the rails and stays in the ground where it belongs.

Help us continue the fight by signing the petition to President Obama to ban dangerous oil trains.

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.