California has become ground zero for legal opposition to crude-by-rail projects. Opponents decry derailments, toxic vapors, and other ills.[i] Yet despite the dire images painted by crude-by-rail’s opponents, the reality on the ground in California has been quite mundane thus far. The high-water mark to date for California railborne crude supplies was approximately 39 thousand barrels of oil per day (kbd) in December 2013 (Exhibit 1). To put this number in perspective, California refineries typically process an average of around 1.7 million barrels per day of crude – meaning that at the crude-by-rail peak, only about one barrel in 50 of the state’s crude supply came in by rail.[ii] Presently, the number is closer to one barrel in 100 – certainly not the overwhelming flood of trains opponents fear. And to that point, even supplying one-quarter of California’s total crude oil needs would only require about six to seven crude oil unit trains per day. To put this in context, the Colton Crossing east of Los Angeles by itself can see more than 100 freight trains per day.[iii]

Exhibit 1: California Crude by Rail Sources

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Source: California Energy Commission, Alberta Office of Statistics and Information

Where California’s Railborne Oil Imports Come From

For much of the past six years, light, low-sulfur Bakken crude and heavier, higher-sulfur Western Canadian Select (“WCS”) dominated rail imports into California. Canadian supplies show a clear correlation with how cheap WCS is relative to Maya, a heavy crude oil from Mexico that is shipped by tanker and offers a proxy for what heavy, sour, waterborne crude oil imports into California will cost. The spread between WCS and Maya prices matters because it only makes sense for refiners to purchase WCS barrels if they are sufficiently discounted that the buyer still comes out ahead after adjusting for rail transport costs, which can amount to approximately $20/barrel for manifest trains and $15/barrel for oil moved on unit trains.[iv]

For reference, “manifest trains” are mixed cargo trains where a 100-car freight train might include 20 or 30 tanker cars carrying oil. Unit trains, on the other hand, carry only one type of freight, meaning that all 100 to 120 cars carry crude oil. This maximizes economies of scale and significantly reduces transportation costs. Shipments of Canadian crude oil into California traditionally rode on manifest trains, but in November 2014, Union Pacific brought its first unit train of crude oil from Western Canada into California, to a terminal near Bakersfield.[v] The route is currently dormant as WCS crude’s discount to Maya was less than $10 per barrel in January 2015, according to official price data, making it uneconomical to import the Canadian oil by rail.[vi] Unit trains’ lower costs relative to the previously used manifest trains will likely have oil trains rolling from Alberta to California once again if the WCS discount widens to around $15 per barrel.

California has also seen increased supplies of light, low-sulfur crude oil from New Mexico in recent months. The most likely explanation for this is that continued strong oil production in Texas, New Mexico, and the Midcontinent are inundating the Gulf Coast with light, sweet barrels. Indeed, this author’s models using official Energy Information Administration data strongly suggest that Gulf Coast refineries have hit a physical “wall” where they are not able to sustainably use more than 65 percent domestic crude oil to supply their plants, because facilities designed for heavier, higher-sulfur oils cannot run at maximal efficiency with light, low-sulfur crude feedstocks.[vii] This crowded market reduces the potential realized value of crude to certain Permian Basin producers and makes California attractive as a clearing destination because crude can be railed from the Permian Basin to California for as little as $7-8/bbl, according to Tesoro.[viii]

What the Future May Hold

The bottom line is that California’s existing crude-by-rail terminal capacity is massively underutilized at present. The state’s two largest facilities alone – Kinder Morgan’s terminal at Richmond and Plains All American’s new terminal near Bakersfield – can offload more than 140 kbd at full capacity. In comparison, crude-by-rail import volumes were less than 20 kbd in December 2014, the last month for which data are available (Exhibit 2). 

Exhibit 2: California Crude by Rail Capacity vs. Actual Import Volumes

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Source: California Energy Commission, Company Reports

Current terminal capacity is sufficient for approximately two unit trains per day of crude – 140 to 150 kbd – to enter the state. California’s fickle politics make forecasting crude-by-rail volumes a tough exercise. That said, this author believes that if oil prices recover to at least $75/bbl, California’s railborne crude imports will likely exceed 200 kbd by early 2016. Under those conditions, existing terminals would increase their capacity utilization and larger price differentials would attract additional Canadian heavy crude, as well as Bakken and other light, sweet grades from the Rocky Mountain states and the Permian