Federal data: Not many oil trains for Keystone XL to displace
By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, April 2, 2015
New data on crude oil shipments by rail released by the Department of Energy this week show that there are relatively few oil trains taking the path of the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
In its first monthly report on crude by rail, the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that the bulk of oil shipments by rail are moving from North Dakota’s Bakken region to refineries in the mid-Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest.
Far less is moving from either Canada or the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, the location of 45 percent of U.S. refining capacity. Only about 5 percent of the crude oil moved by rail nationwide in January was bound for the Gulf Coast from either Canada or the Midwest.
A series of derailments has brought increased scrutiny to oil transportation by rail. Since the beginning of the year, four oil trains have derailed in the U.S. and Canada, leading to spills, fires and evacuations.
The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing new regulations intended to improve the safety of oil trains. They’re scheduled for publication next month.
Some supporters of the 1,700-mile Keystone project have claimed that it would reduce the need for rail shipments. The pipeline would have a projected capacity of 830,000 barrels a day, and would primarily move heavy crude oil from western Canada to the Gulf Coast.
The government’s new data confirms, however, that the primary flows of oil by rail are not to the Gulf Coast. Northeast refineries, concentrated in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have come to rely heavily on Bakken crude delivered by rail, and to a lesser extent, Canadian oil.
Oil trains have resulted in a 60 percent decline in oil imported to the East Coast from overseas countries, according to EIA.
Of the roughly 1 million barrels a day of oil that moved by rail in January, according to EIA, 914,000 barrels were from the Midwest petroleum-producing district that includes North Dakota, while another 130,000 barrels a day crossed the border from Canada.
In a report last month, the Energy Department projected that shipments of Canadian oil by rail could more than triple by 2016.
The mid-Atlantic region received 437,000 barrels a day from the Midwest district, and only 61,000 barrels from Canada. That’s roughly the equivalent of six or seven 100-car trains, each carrying about 3 million gallons.
Another 171,000 barrels a day from the Midwest, or about two to three 100-car trains, supplied West Coast refineries, mostly in Washington state.
The Gulf Coast region received only 107,000 barrels of oil a day from the Midwest and Canada combined. Another 107,000 barrels came from the Rocky Mountain petroleum-producing district, which includes the Niobrara region of Colorado and Wyoming.
Including oil that comes from west Texas or New Mexico, the equivalent of about three to four 100-car trains arrive at the Gulf Coast every day.
Repost from Crosscut, News of the Great Nearby [Editor: This is an excellent broad analysis of the intermingled risks of increasing rail, marine and pipeline delivery of North American crude to ports in the Pacific Northwest. Recommended reading. (Note that comments on increasing export of crude appear in the bulleted section, 9 paragraphs into the article.) Be sure to view the Friends of the Earth infographic showing regional impacts of multiple proposed fuel transport projects. – RS]
Guest Opinion: Dirty fuel exports darken NW’s Earth Day
By Fred Felleman, March 31, 2015
Some hailed President Barack Obama’s recent veto of the Keystone pipeline authorization legislation as an early Earth Day gift, spelling the project’s death knell. However, his decision was actually based on process, not policy. While Obama has articulated the science behind climate change better than any predecessor, his all-of-the-above energy strategy has opened the floodgates to unprecedented levels of domestic fossil fuel extraction with lax oversight.
These policies resulted in disasters such as BP’s indelible mark on the Gulf of Mexico five Earth Days ago. In typical fashion, regulators responded with some of the long-needed oversight, but offshore production soon came roaring back.
Recent oil train derailments, exposing communities to elevated risks, also reflect the administration’s policies in the face of the gusher of under-regulated fracked oil as it became cost-effective to bring to market by rail. While Bakken oil is the primary source of this incendiary risk, there are still only proposed national regulations on fracking without consideration of climate impacts. Despite the growing number of oil-train accidents, only weak requirements for safer tanker cars are being developed though Sen. Maria Cantwell just introduced legislation beginning to address this deficiency.
Leases are also being let on public lands at bargain-basement rates for coal extraction and risky Arctic oil exploration. Even after Shell Oil’s calamitous attempts to drill in the Chukchi Sea three years ago, resulting in eight felony convictions and $12.2 million in fines, the company is pursuing Arctic development this year.
Closer to home, Shell has secured the ability to use Terminal 5 from the Port of Seattle to maintain their oil rigs. This is yet another reflection of how the Northwest is being broadly targeted as the gateway for oil, coal and liquefied natural gas to Asian markets – all of which contribute unacceptable climate impacts.
Not since the late 1970s, when NW refineries switched from receiving crude oil from Alberta by pipeline to tankers from Alaska and elsewhere, have Washington’s waters and communities been exposed to such a growth in vessel casualties and oil spill risk. Despite the abandonment of four coal terminal proposals, there are still nearly 20 proposals for oil, coal, propane and LNG terminals either under review or recently permitted.
There is a major difference between the proactive safety planning that preceded the arrival of Alaskan oil tankers in the 1970s with the ad hoc gold-rush mentality that pervades today’s permit decisions.
The last time there was such a growing threat of catastrophic spills, the late Sen. Warren Magnuson took the lead in protecting the Sound from spills. He restricted the size and number of tankers transiting east of Port Angeles and worked on other national and local safety measures, like the 1978 Port and Tanker Safety Act and the creation of an international vessel traffic system in North America, enabling the Coast Guard to serve as ship traffic controllers in the Pacific Northwest. These measures lasted the test of time and continue to contribute to our admirable oil spill record – a legacy to endure. However, it is critical not to rest on our laurels especially since frequency of incidents and accidents are a far better indication of risk exposure than rare spills.
In contrast, today, while new risks accumulate, we see reductions being made in rail and marine safety measures, despite efforts by Sen. Cantwell and others. Such reductions include:
Rail companies are trying to negotiate with unions to reduce the number of crew from two to one required for the operation of 100-plus-car oil trains. The Federal Railroad Administration has not even defined the minimum crew size required for safe operations despite years of requests by the NTSB.
The Obama administration recently published clarification as to the seven ways in which domestically produced crude can be exported from the U.S. Despite this liberalization of exports, oil companies are pushing Congress for complete elimination of the longstanding ban on exports of U.S. oil.
The U.S. Army Corps asserted in the draft environmental impact statement, 10 years in the making, for the construction of BP’s second tanker dock at Cherry Point that the agency’s permit did not violate a Magnuson amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But the amendment seems to explicitly prohibit such actions. They have also yet to respond to the Lummi’s tribe call to abandon the Gateway coal project due to impacts to their treaty-protected rights.
The Washington State Pilotage Commission recently reduced the training required of pilots allowed to guide oil tankers in and out of Grays Harbor — despite growth in vessel traffic and three newly proposed oil terminals there.
Gov. Jay Inslee and local governments failed to require full environmental impact statements evaluating the chronic train and cumulative vessel impacts of the numerous oil terminal proposals prior to issuing permits. The only time such analysis has been required is in response to lawsuits. (An infographic was produced by Friends of the Earth and Protect Whatcom to visualize this increase associated with new terminals.)
One recent exercise of state authority was the Utilities and Trade Commission’s (UTC) fines against BNSF’s series of oil spills from oil trains calling on Washington. While such leadership is encouraging, in reality we don’t need their money as much as we need to be freed from their leaky oil trains. Similarly, on the marine front there is state legislation calling for tugs to escort the growing number of oil barges moving through Washington waters.
The combined vessel traffic currently bound to and from ports in Washington and British Columbia make the Strait of Juan de Fuca the second busiest waterway in North America.
While Washington’s regulatory agencies are overwhelmed by the onslaught of new terminal proposals and the fate of the Keystone pipeline nationally remains uncertain, there is a major threat coming from Canada to Washington and British Columbia’s Salish Sea. Former Enron executives acquired the Kinder Morgan pipeline that currently connects the vast Alberta tar sand reserves with a port near Vancouver, British Columbia. They are now seeking permits from Canada’s National Energy Board to triple its capacity, making it comparable in volume to the far better known Keystone proposal.
A spur in the Trans Mountain pipeline has also directly connected Washington’s four largest refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties to Albertan oil since the 1950s. This helps explain why the refineries were constructed in the navigationally challenging waters through the San Juan Islands, rather than along the much broader Juan de Fuca Strait.
This expansion would result in a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic transiting through the San Juan Islands and the core area of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale community. The tankers would go from about one per week to one per day. Researchers at the George Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University calculated this would result in a 51 percent increase in the amount of oil transported through the Salish Sea and increases in the risks of oil spills from collisions and groundings.
Tar Sands pose unique challenges to the response community. In order to get the heavy bitumen produced in Alberta to flow into pipelines, rail cars and tankers, it needs to be mixed with highly volatile diluents. This mixture, known as dilbit, has been shown to be explosive during accidents. And, during spills, the evaporation of volatile vapors poses health risks to responders, while the heavy remainders sink in water, complicating clean-up efforts.
Despite risks of Trans Mountain’s proposed expansion to the Salish Sea, the U.S. Coast Guard has been reluctant to release incident data in these boundary waters, claiming that is up to Canada – including when incidents occurred in U.S. waters. The lack of this data has underrepresented the vessel casualty risk in the analysis conducted for several terminal proposals.
Building a cross-Cascades pipeline to bring Alaskan oil to the Rocky Mountain states was part of the original plan to construct the state’s largest refinery (ARCO, now BP Cherry Point) north of Bellingham in the 1970s. This would have significantly increased the number of tankers calling on our waters that Magnuson’s efforts successfully thwarted. Now there is state legislation introduced to study sending oil over the cascades in the other direction, thereby connecting Washington refineries to Midwest oil. A recent series of major pipeline leaks has demonstrated how regulations have also lagged behind this oft-touted safest form of oil transportation. Since 2012, according the AP, 50 pipelines have been constructed – adding 3.3 million barrels of daily pipeline capacity, dwarfing Keystone’s 800,000. Between 2004 and 2012, U.S. pipelines spilled three times as much crude as oil trains.
As restrictions on the export of domestic oil are lifted, any purported benefits of pipelines will be quickly eclipsed by the risks associated with the increased volumes of oil being shipped overseas.
Based on statements in the President’s State of the Union address calling on Congress to send him something more than just a pipeline bill, it appears that he is willing to horse trade the completion of the Keystone pipeline for Republican support of his other priority infrastructure projects. Regardless, the uncertainty about Keystone has only emboldened Kinder Morgan to influence Canadian government decision-makers to get one of the world’s largest, most destructive and energy inefficient oil sources to international markets, risking the Salish Sea waters Washington shares with Canada.
As we look toward Earth Day, it’s sobering to remember the failures of oil shipment policies the country has seen. It was 26 years ago last week (March 24) that the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into the biological oasis of Prince William Sound. After that, Congress finally required tankers to be double hulled. It took until this year to complete the phase out of all single-hulled tankers, each carrying up to 33 million gallons of crude through Washington waters. One of Magnuson’s last actions was to write to Congress on his deathbed following Exxon’s abject failure to prevent or respond to their despoiling of Prince William Sound, calling on that body to require double hulls for oil tankers.
Obama’s priority trade deal, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), will require compensating fossil fuel extractors for potential lost revenues if they are required to “keep it in the ground.” This subsidy undermines an essential step for combating catastrophic climate impacts.
The great legacy, from Magnuson and others, of protecting of Puget Sound is under threat. We need stronger local, state and congressional leadership on energy and the environment. And we need our next president to redefine an “all of the above” energy policy into one that transfers subsidies from peddlers of fossil fuel to peddlers of bicycles and for energy truly coming from above, such as wind and solar power. Otherwise, our children will lose the benefits of the natural capital we are jeopardizing by our lack of long-term vision.
Why oil trains (don’t have to) explode: Everything you need to know
By Rob Davis | April 02, 2015 at 1:22 PM
Crude oil was never supposed to explode.
Then a train pulling 72 cars of it derailed in a tiny town in Quebec in July 2013. The oil turned into a mushroom cloud of flame. It looked terrifying. Watch the first minute of this video:
Forty-seven people were killed that night.
Since then, eight more trains hauling oil have derailed and erupted in flames, drawing scrutiny to a new phenomenon: Crude oil, which once primarily moved in ships and pipelines, is being hauled around North America by rail in unprecedented volumes. More than a million barrels a day now move that way.
The federal government, which regulates train safety, has slowly moved to make oil trains more secure. Regulators are focusing on strengthening the tank cars carrying the oil.
But safety experts say regulators have ignored steps that would make oil trains less likely to go off like a bomb when they derail.
Depending on where it is produced, oil can be dark and thick or light and free flowing. Different amounts of highly flammable gases like propane and butane can be dissolved in it, affecting its volatility. (These are what your backyard gas grill uses.)
Much of the oil moving by rail comes from North Dakota. And what’s coming out of the ground there has been unusually volatile. North Dakota crude moving in Oregon contains far higher levels of propane than similar types of oil.
Some North Dakota crude has been more volatile than gasoline. So when the trains have derailed, the flammable gases within have fueled those sky-high fireballs.
That doesn’t have to happen.
Michael Eyer, a retired Oregon hazardous materials train inspector, said federal regulators could impose a cap on the amount of flammable gas allowed in the oil.
“You would have a fire,” Eyer said. “But you would not have the mushroom cloud in the sky.”
Producers can strip out those highly flammable gases before the oil is loaded for shipment. The process is called stabilization. North Dakota oil regulators estimate it would add $2 to the cost of every barrel.
Less volatile oil could still burn in a derailment, Eyer said. But nearby residents and firefighters responding to train accidents would be safer: Those fireballs don’t just shoot up. They spread, too.
State regulators in North Dakota have set the first ever limit to tame the most volatile crude. It went into effect April 1. It requires a less-intense treatment process that North Dakota regulators estimate will cost 10 cents per barrel.
But Eyer and a crude oil expert say the limit is too high to have widespread impact. The oil that exploded in Quebec in 2013, for example, wouldn’t have been affected.
Harry Giles is a retired federal official who used to oversee crude oil quality for the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. He said North Dakota’s limit should be set lower.
“It would increase the safety and lessen the risk,” Giles said. “Fires would be less intense.”
Compare this fire during a May 2011 derailment northwest of Portland near Scappoose. That’s ethanol — pure grain alcohol — burning. It’s far less volatile than North Dakota crude.
The fire was still dangerous. But firefighters were able to get close enough to put water on the cars. That’s a fire hose spraying at the top of the photo.
Now see what happened after a December 2013 derailment with crude oil in North Dakota.
Look close. That’s a train down there at the bottom.
Stricter limits would reduce the dangers faced by millions of people who live next to rail lines nationwide, Eyer said.
That includes Oregonians like Jamie Maygra, a retired ironworker who lives in Deer Island, along the state’s primary oil train route. He said he worries about the oil’s volatility every time he drives near an oil train with his 2- and 3-year-old granddaughters.
He said he’s frustrated that neither industry nor safety regulators have moved faster to keep people like his granddaughters safe.
“I think about that all the time,” Maygra said. “The chances of that happening are slim, but it’s a lot more with this oil. They don’t care about nothing but money. That’s what’s aggravating. They put profit before people.”
Federal safety regulators say they’re studying what makes the oil so flammable and what could be done. Tim Butters is the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency with authority to set limits. He recently told a Congressional committee his agency, known as PHMSA, is looking at ways to remove flammable gases from crude.
But the methods for doing that are already well known. They’re currently used in Texas oil fields, where flammable gases are separated and piped to nearby plants.
Eyer said the agency should move faster.
“The industry needs to figure out what the hell this stuff is and regulators need to say ‘We’re going to act now,’ ” he said. “How many rivers on fire and deaths are needed? What is the price?”
If federal regulators forced North Dakota producers to emulate what happens in Texas, those producers would have to burn or ship the gases they stripped from the oil. Currently, though, North Dakota does not have enough pipelines to move those flammable gases nor a market for them.
Susan Lagana, a PHMSA spokeswoman, said her agency is concerned about the volatility of oil moving by rail. But research is needed to determine exactly what makes the explosions so severe, she said, and what could be done to minimize them.
Eyer and Giles agreed that North Dakota’s volatility limits were too high, but they didn’t agree about what the right level is.
“That’s what we need to know,” Lagana said. “We are willing to consider all options to address making the product safer in transportation.”
The relevant research, being done by the federal Energy Department, should be finished this summer, Butters told Congress. But he didn’t promise any next steps once it’s done.
In the meantime, allowing producers to leave those flammable gases in the oil gives them more profit, allowing them to slightly bulk up the volumes they ship. It’s one reason the oil industry is fighting suggestions to stabilize North Dakota oil.
Don’t blame the oil for explosions, the industry argues. Blame the derailing trains.
“Keeping the trains on the tracks is the only way to ensure that crude… will be transported in the safest possible manner,” Charles Drevna, president of American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers recently wrote.
Solely focusing on tank cars and trains “is not enough,” Eyer said. “The starting point is always what are you putting into the car?”
A bill introduced recently in the U.S. Senate by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Dianne Feinstein and Tammy Baldwin proposes limiting the volatility of oil moving by rail. They want the rules in place within two years.
It’s a sign that political leaders have realized the North Dakota oil poses unique risks that could be reduced. A spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said he is tracking the issue and continues talking to federal transportation officials to find ways to address it.
Train of thought: Citizens worry oil tankers traveling through Guadalupe to the Phillips 66 refinery could explode
By David Minsky, April 1, 2015
Residents worried that their town could become the scene of an oil tanker explosion voiced their concerns during a March 24 Guadalupe City Council meeting.
The Santa Maria Refinery property sits on the Nipomo Mesa, less than 5 miles away from Guadalupe, and that’s where owner Phillips 66 wants to build a rail spur to connect it to an existing Union Pacific Railroad line. Plans for a transfer station are in the works, too.
The project would change where the refinery gets oil and how the resource is delivered to the refinery, which currently receives most of its oil via pipeline from Northern Santa Barbara County. The rail spur could bring up to five 80-car trains per week carrying crude oil through downtown Guadalupe on the Union Pacific line. Union Pacific Railroad would be responsible for delivering the railcars, refinery spokesperson Jim Anderson said at the meeting.
On the table was whether or not the City Council would endorse a letter from 3rd District Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr, who opposes the project. All sides—including representatives from Phillips 66, who encouraged the council to not take action on the letter in light of a yet-to-be completed environmental impact report; and the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, which opposes the project—made their cases before a packed house of politicians, residents, and journalists. The letter was secondary to the discussion, though. The real question that was debated: Is it safe to allow railcars of crude oil to pass through Guadalupe?
Citing more than 60 years of safe rail operations, Anderson said the extension is necessary for the refinery to maintain its present rate of crude oil processing. With Central Coast oil production in decline and a strong demand for fuel—only one of the many products refined from crude—in California, Anderson said the spur is needed.
“The only way to fill up and complete that 44,000-barrel-a-day rate is, rather than propose a marine terminal or a truck terminal with thousands of trucks on the highway, we felt that a rail terminal, which is sitting right next to the mainline railroad tracks, would be the best alternative,” Anderson said, adding that the trains would be similar to the ones that have rolled through Guadalupe in the last 10 years, but would be slightly longer.
At one point while Anderson was speaking, an audible train horn blared in the distance, prompting chuckles among the crowd.
The idea of oil trains wasn’t so funny to Laurance Shinderman, who spoke on behalf of the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, which formed to identify the negative impacts of the rail project. He noted the explosive potential of crude’s flashpoint—the temperature at which vapor forms and can ignite.
“The lower the flashpoint of the crude, the greater the risk,” Shinderman said, emphasizing that oil being shipped has a lower flashpoint. “I’m not a chemistry engineer, but I’ve done enough reading on this.”
He went on to cite several instances of tanker cars exploding or catching on fire, including the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec where multiple tankers carrying Bakken formation crude oil derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying more than 30 buildings in a town roughly the size of Guadalupe.
Shinderman described the Phillips 66 proposal as “oil roulette.”
More people spoke against the spur after Shinderman, including Joyce Howerton, an aide who spoke on behalf of state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). Amy Anderson, a Santa Maria resident and volunteer for the Santa Barbara County Action Network, briefly talked about empty oil tankers.
“An empty liquid petroleum gas tanker is actually even more explosive than a full one,” she said. “Once they start to explode, you can only hope the town’s been evacuated and there are no onlookers because the fragments from the exploding tankers will assault Guadalupe like shrapnel from a roadside bomb. That’s not an exaggeration.”
Neither minimizing nor enhancing the risk of danger, Guadalupe Police Chief Gary Hoving said his biggest concern is a lack of emergency resources to evacuate the city in the event of a tanker explosion. Citing a FEMA estimate, Hoving said a blast zone with shrapnel would be limited to about 1 1/4 miles. He recommended an evacuation zone of at least 7,000 feet.
“A derailment in the city of Guadalupe would necessitate an evacuation of the entire city,” Hoving said during the meeting. “The major concerns that I have are related solely to public safety … our lack of sufficient fire and police, especially for an initial response.”
The last train derailment in Guadalupe was in 2007, when several cars came off the track, including four that spilled cases of Corona beer.
Hoving also asked where the funding for additional resources would come from.
Phillips 66 spokesperson Anderson noted that his company is presently working with the governor’s office to place a fee on each barrel of oil that’s loaded and unloaded. The money collected would go into a state-level emergency services fund and provide money for increasing the capability of emergency response, he said.
The fate of the spur is still up in the air. At the end of the debate that Tuesday night, the city eventually voted 4-1 to not to take any action on endorsing Farr’s letter. Councilmember Ariston Julian dissented. Before the vote, Julian made a motion to endorse the letter, but it wasn’t seconded.
Julian expressed concern for the city’s water source and residents living immediately near the tracks—including the soon-to-be-built Pasadera housing development that broke ground on March 4—if an accident caused oil to spill or explode.
“In the unlikelihood that there is, we have a potential of losing people and also losing our water source,” Julian said.