Senator Wiener Introduces Bill to Protect California Waterways from Dangerous Spills of Tar Sands Oil

March 3, 2017

Sacramento -- Today Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced a bill to protect California’s waterways from dangerous spills of tar sands oil. California has laws to prevent and prepare for “conventional” oil spills that can be cleaned up from the surface of the water. These laws do not take into account oils like those derived from tar sands that will sink to the bottom of waterways and contaminate entire aquatic ecosystems. These oils are hard, if not impossible, to clean up after a spill. The legislation covers all interior waters located in California, as well as the California coastline.

SB 709 requires that any operator wishing to transport tar sands oil or other non-floating oil in or near a California waterway must have a contingency plan specifically outlining how it will clean up non-floating oils and identifying an organization that can and will engagement in that clean up. If the operator cannot provide such a contingency plan or identify such an organization, the transport permit will be denied. Currently, there is no known organization capable of cleaning up tar sands if a spill occurs. A 2010 tar sands spill in the Kalamazoo River that occurred from a rupture in a pipeline led to the environmental devastation of the river’s ecosystem and took over five years to clean up.

“California’s bays, rivers, and coastline are some of the most stunning and important natural resources in the world, and we need to be vigilant in safeguarding them from destructive oil spills,” said Senator Wiener. “A tar sands oil spill in San Francisco Bay would be devastating, but right now, we don't even require oil companies to state how they will clean up this sinking oil if it spills. This bill creates a clear and necessary requirement that if you want to bring tar sands oils anywhere near our waterways, you better have a real plan to clean up after yourselves. If you don’t have a plan, you won't be allowed to bring your oil near our waterways.”

Senator Wiener is joined on SB 709 by co-authors Senators Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), Jim Beall (D-San Jose), Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), and Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park). The bill is sponsored by San Francisco Baykeeper, the nonprofit pollution watchdog for the San Francisco Bay. SB 709 also has the support of Save the Bay, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Clean Water Action, the Bay Institute, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

“San Francisco Bay has experienced a number of harmful oil spills from ships,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Executive Director of San Francisco Baykeeper. “But tar sands oil will be even worse.  Rather than floating like lighter oils, tar sands are heavier and sink to the bottom of a waterway. An increase in tar sands oil being transported to our local refineries could result in a spill that might irreversibly injure the Bay’s wildlife and ecosystem. We want to know there’s a plan in place to clean up a mess before it becomes a disaster for San Francisco Bay.”

The NRDC recently published a study titled The Tar Sands Tanker Threat: American Waterways in Industry’s Sights, which looked at the impacts of new proposals that would significantly increase the transport of these non-floating oils along America’s rivers and coastlines.

“Our continued dependence on fossil fuels means exploiting harder and harder to reach oils. The result is that we end up with substances that spill responders can’t clean up, like Alberta’s tar sands or Venezuela’s Orinoco oil,” said Joshua Axelrod, Policy Analyst at the NRDC. “These extra heavy oils quickly begin to sink when spilled into water, making clean up impossible. This bill takes a first step at protecting our waters and wildlife from the real threat of an oil spill that can’t be cleaned up. It ensures that any oil tankers entering California waters have resources in place ahead of time to protect Californians and our precious natural resources from hazardous oil spills.”

Although the majority of tar sands deposits are located far from the coastline, they are often transported to the coast via pipeline where they are then shipped down the coast on tankers to refineries. For example, tar sands oils are currently carried by the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, where some of these tar sands are put onto tankers to be shipped to refineries, most of which are in California. There is a proposal to expand this Trans Mountain pipeline, which would triple the amount of tar sands being shipped west through Canada, resulting in even more tar sands being shipped down to the California coast to be refined.

The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is another prominent tar sands pipeline that will carry tar sands deposits south from Alberta to Nebraska, where it would join an existing pipeline that continues south to the Texas Gulf Coast. President Obama denied the issuance of the Keystone XL permit to allow construction in the United States, but four days after office, President Trump granted the permit.

Over 25 years ago, the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act established the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spills, with the goal of protecting California’s natural resources, public health, and safety. The Act imposes various requirements related to oil spill contingency planning, including the obligation that a vessel operator or marine facility prepare and implement an oil spill contingency plan, and identify an organization that will clean up any oil spill. These contingency plans are effective in handling “conventional” or floating oils, but not the highly dense non-floating oil known as bitumen and found in tar sands.

SB 709 requires that an owner or operator of any vessel carrying non-floating oil, such as tar sands, have an approved oil spill contingency plan that describes procedures, techniques, and demonstrated technologies that are effective for responding to a spill of non-floating oils. This includes identifying an oil spill response organization capable of responding to a tar sands spill. No such organization currently exists.

Contact: Jeff Cretan,