GRANT COOKE: Time to Shed the Company Town Label

With permission by the author. (Published in the Benicia Herald, 5/3/16, no online presence, thus no link…)

Time to Shed the Company Town Label

By Grant Cooke, April 29, 2016
Grant Cooke
Grant Cooke

I have a great deal of respect and gratitude toward municipal politicians, particularly those who toil on the city council and commission level. The hours are long, the decisions tough, and the pay bad to non-existent. Heaven knows that without good folks looking after the stuff that keeps a social contract intact, Thomas Hobbes’s “natural state” of chaos, violence, and potholes would be the norm.

This goes for the folks who lead our fair city. Benicia’s mayor and members of the council seem like fine people. They attend the meetings, do the horrific amount of homework required to be conversant with the issues, and overall appear to be decent folks with a sincere believe that they are doing the collective good by serving their fellow citizens. I’m grateful for their service; but I just wish that three of them—Alan Schwartzman, Christina Strawbridge and Mark Hughes—would resign.

Their collective efforts to secure Valero’s delay of the crude-by-rail decision against overwhelming community disapproval, the unanimous rejection of the project by the Planning Commission, the concerns of every major city along the proposed rail path, and the thousands of letters and statements against the project by informed and credible experts raises the bar of small town political shamefulness.

That it was clear from the start that the three council members were going to side with Valero verges on chicanery. Why put the town’s citizens through the hope of believing that their concerns of health and wellbeing are being heard and matter, if you support a volatile project that has a blast zone that includes an elementary school?

Since none of the three has stepped forward with a clear and convincing argument about why they sided with Valero—after all Valero would still bring the oil in by existing means and really doesn’t need the continuous line of daily rail tankers to stay in business and pay its taxes—we are left with the impression that once again, a small American town is at the mercy of a major oil company.

The history of the US oil industry is a trail of tears going back to the early days of ruthless land grabs, the mendacity and murder of Standard Oil’s oligarchy, the tragic violence of the Middle East, and the rise of climate change and environmental pollution. And to think, all this could, and still can, be avoided by shifting from carbon-based to renewable energy.

(As an aside, look at Denton Texas. This small Texas oil town, home to many of Dallas’s oil executives, banned fracking and drilling in the city limits. Evidently, they didn’t want to run the risk of an accident close to parks and schools. There’s a lesson here for Benicia. As a state, New York stood tall against the oil industry, but Denton is the only US small town I know of to have the self-respect required to say enough.)

So, the question before the citizens of Benicia is now what? What good is Benicia’s formal planning process if corporate power can bludgeon a thorough and lengthy review and rejection of the crude-by-rail proposal? Why put the residents through all the work and hope of participating in the democratic process if there is no intention by the council to understand their concerns or follow their wishes?

I grew up in rural America and know what a “company town” is. In some ways, it was simple and easy, letting the company bosses tell you where to work, what and who to like, what to believe in and who to vote for.

But it lacked fulfillment and self-determination, and I moved to the Bay Area to be part of the epicenter of the world’s intellectual and scientific renaissance where freedom of thought, action, and the ideals of local democracy are so highly acclaimed. Yet, ironically, I end up in a “company town”, where a huge carbon polluter can seemly send three decent council members scurrying to service its greed.

The problems of 21st century cities, big and small, are complex and can no longer be inclusive of one economic driver or administered by one major corporate power. For Benicia to move forward and join the extraordinary Bay Area knowledge-based economy we need to say goodbye to those three council members who lack the wherewithal to help the city past its company-town era.

Other once-rural Bay Area cities have thrown of the oppressive yoke of being run by a single company, exchanging “easy” for self-determination. Cities like Sunnyvale and Mountain View long ago threw off the yoke of the defense industry and learned to reinvent themselves and flourish. Walnut Creek, Livermore, and now Richmond are joining the prosperity of a sophisticated diverse economy. Vallejo and the other cities along I-80 are showing signs of change as the robust modern Bay Area economy moves outward from Silicon Valley.

If Benicia hopes to continue as a fully functioning city with a compliment of services and a healthy and vigorous citizenry, it has to look forward, shed its dependence on Valero, and embrace a 21st century reality.

Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident, author and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. His newest book, Smart Green Cities: Toward a Carbon Neutral World was published in April. The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics was published last year.

DERAILMENT: Washington DC – leaking three different chemicals

Repost from the Washington Post

CSX train derails in Northeast Washington DC, leaking three different hazardous chemicals and disrupting travel

By Faiz Siddiqui, Luz Lazo and Michael Smith, May 1, 2016 6:31 PM
Train_Derailment_Washington-DC_2016-05-01 01
May 1, 2016 The CSX train derailed Sunday at 6:40 a.m., spilling sodium hydroxide from one of the cars. Thirteen cars of the 175- car train left the tracks. DC Fire and EMS via AP

A CSX freight train derailed in Northeast Washington early Sunday, spilling hazardous chemicals along a busy rail corridor. The wreck stranded some residents away from their homes, forced the closure of a Metro station and snarled traffic as emergency personnel sought to contain the leaks and clear the wreckage.

Officials said 14 rail cars of the 175-car train left the tracks. A rail engineer and a conductor had been aboard the train but were accounted for, authorities said. No evacuations were ordered, and no one was injured.

The cause of the wreck is under investigation, and the Federal Railroad Administration was at the scene Sunday.

Red Line service was suspended between Metro’s NoMa-Gallaudet and Brookland stations, and the Rhode Island Avenue station was closed. At least six blocks of Rhode Island Avenue NE were closed for much of the day.

The derailment occurred about 6:40 a.m. as the train was passing through Washington from Cumberland, Md., en route to Hamlet, N.C., CSX said. The crash site was near Ninth Street NE and Rhode Island Avenue NE. CSX said 94 cars were carrying mixed freight and 81 were empty.

The derailment, about 70 cars into the train, spilled half the liquid contents of a 15,500- gallon tanker containing sodium hydroxide, D.C. Fire and EMS Deputy Chief John Donnelly said. The liquid spilled onto the tracks and seeped into the ground below it.

May 1, 2016 Officials walk on the Metropolitan Branch Trail — closed to the public — as they survey the scene of a CSX train derailment. Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post

Officials said there were no air- or water-quality issues at the scene.

CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost said the company did not have a timeline on the cleanup or restoration of the tracks.

“First let me apologize to the community for the inconvenience and the alarm that the derailment caused this morning,” she said. “Every decision that we’re making is focused on the safety of the responders and the community.”

CSX described sodium hydroxide as a chemical “used to produce various household products, including paper, soap and detergents.” It is a chemical component similar to bleach or Drano, officials said. Two other rail cars were leaking chemicals that officials described as less hazardous.

By mid-morning, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said the chemical leak was contained. But more detailed inspections revealed further leaks, according to CSX. In addition to the tank car leaking sodium hydroxide, another tank car was found to be leaking calcium chloride, described as “non-hazardous,” while a third was leaking ethanol “slowly from the base of a valve,” CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay said.

The wreckage was visible from high-rise apartments near the crash site: A zigzag pattern of mangled tankers and overturned freight cars sat beside the tracks below the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station. A set of wheels, still intact but missing its freight car, sat upright beside the track bed.

Emergency personnel work at the scene after a CSX freight train derailed in Washington on Sunday. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Weekdays, the affected tracks are shared by Amtrak, MARC and CSX trains. The tracks also run parallel to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, popular with cyclists and runners. On Sunday, the trail was closed near the site of the derailment, and officials said it would remain closed indefinitely.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said barring any unforeseen circumstances, Red Line service would be restored Sunday night.

Stessel said CSX was working to upright a rail car that was leaking ethanol. When the leak is mitigated, he said, the Metro tracks would be turned back over to the agency, which would run test trains and probably restore service soon thereafter.

If for any reason CSX is not able to turn over the scene, Stessel said, “that could affect service into the morning.”

MARC announced major service disruptions for its Brunswick Line on Monday because of the derailment. Its trains will run as far south as Silver Spring, where Metro will accept passengers at no charge to continue their commutes into the District. In addition, the Amtrak line from Washington to Chicago will not run Monday, but the Northeast Corridor lines will run as normal, officials said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the effects of exposure to sodium hydroxide can include irritated eyes, burning skin, loss of hair and swelling of the lungs. The odorless solid is white or colorless and is usually in flakes, beads or a granular form. Sodium hydroxide is especially dangerous when mixed with water, because the toxin when wet creates heat that can ignite flammable products. It was raining heavily Sunday morning near the crash site.

Donnelly said the amount that leaked did not put District residents at risk.

“The fumes should not cause you any problems, and you should not be able to smell them anywhere else,” he said.

In recent years, Washington residents and elected officials have voiced concerns about rail safety and the risk of having freight trains pass through residential neighborhoods and the seat of the federal government.

Residents of Navy Yard, a formerly industrial neighborhood that is now densely populated, fought a CSX plan to reconstruct the 110-year-old Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Southeast, a key piece of the region’s rail infrastructure that is just a mile away from the U.S. Capitol. CSX is now in the midst of the $170 million project, which includes twin tunnels built to allow for double-stacked trains.

One of the most hotly debated projects in recent years, the tunnel project revived concerns about the safety and security of the city’s railways, prompting the D.C. Council two years ago to allocate funding to conduct a comprehensive rail study that would provide an assessment of all rail service: passenger, commuter and freight.

Some residents say they fear they are at a greater risk of train derailments and that once the tunnel project is completed, CSX will increase the transportation of crude oil and other hazardous materials through the area.

CSX says it rarely transports crude oil through the District and does not carry hazardous substances such as compressed flammable gases and toxic and radioactive materials through the city.

In 2009, rainwater leaking into the Virginia Avenue Tunnel from the Southeast Freeway and Virginia Avenue weakened the earthen floor. A split rail caused the derailment of two locomotives and 13 loaded gondola cars transporting scrap metal. And in the spring of 2014, a CSX freight train derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va., sending rail cars and burning crude spilling into the James River.

Monte Edwards, a trustee with the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which serves as a watchdog on transportation and urban planning issues, said Sunday’s spill raised renewed concerns about the viability of shared freight and passenger tracks in the District.

Speaking for himself, he said the spill showed CSX’s disregard for rail safety and inspections in the District.

“This was a hydroxide that they spilled this time. Those are nasty things coming through,” he said, reflecting on what could have happened had the chemical spilled just a short distance south, near the Capitol.

“A spill like that [one] that just occurred here in Northeast, [if] that would occur near a grate or an entrance to a Metro station, it would flood the Metro station,” he said.

The spill underscores the need for the District to devise a comprehensive rail plan, similar to state plans required under the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, he said. The District Department of Transportation says it expects a rail plan to be completed as early as this summer.

“We would know what’s coming through,” Edwards said. “We would have inspectors. We would have rail safety officers.”

“We have said all along that derailments are very real and these trains are carrying hazardous materials,” said Maureen Cohen Harrington, a Navy Yard resident and member of DCSafeRails, the organization fighting against CSX transporting hazardous materials through the neighborhood. “And what happened today demonstrated that, and we are well aware that this could have been far worse.”

Peter Hermann, Perry Stein and Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.

NEW STUDY: The U.S. oil and gas boom is having global atmospheric consequences

Repost from the Washington Post

The U.S. oil and gas boom is having global atmospheric consequences, scientists suggest

By Chelsea Harvey, April 28, 2016
Advances in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling have unlocked huge amounts of petroleum in the Badlands of Montana. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Scientists say they have made a startling discovery about the link between domestic oil and gas development and the world’s levels of atmospheric ethane — a carbon compound that can both damage air quality and contribute to climate change. A new study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters has revealed that the Bakken Shale formation, a region of intensely increasing recent oil production centered in North Dakota and Montana, accounts for about 2 percent of the entire world’s ethane output — and, in fact, may be partly responsible for reversing a decades-long decline in global ethane emissions.

The findings are important for several reasons. First, ethane output can play a big role in local air quality — when it is released into the atmosphere, it interacts with hydrogen and carbon and can cause ozone to form close to the Earth, where it is considered a pollutant that can irritate or damage the lungs.

Ethane is also technically a greenhouse gas, although its lifetime is so short that it is not considered a primary threat to the climate. That said, its presence can help extend the lifespan of methane — a more potent greenhouse gas — in the atmosphere. This, coupled with ethane’s role in the formation of ozone, makes it a significant environmental concern.

From 1987 until about 2009, scientists observed a decreasing trend in global ethane emissions, from 14.3 million metric tons per year to 11.3 million metric tons. But starting in 2009 or 2010, ethane emissions starting rising again — and scientists began to suspect that an increase in shale oil and gas production in the United States was at least partly to blame. The new study’s findings suggest that this may be the case.

The study took place during May 2014. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aircraft flew over the Bakken Shale and collected data on airborne ethane and methane, as well as ozone, carbon dioxide and other gases.

“We were interested in understanding the atmospheric impacts of some of these oil and gas fields in the U.S. — particularly oil and gas fields that had a lot of expansion of activities in the last decade,” said Eric Kort, the study’s lead author and an atmospheric science professor at the University of Michigan.

The findings were jarring.

“We found that in order to produce the signals we saw on the plane, it would require emissions in the Bakken to be very large for ethane … equivalent to 2 percent of global emissions, which is a very big number for one small region in the U.S.,” Kort said.

Notably, he said, the team’s observations in the Bakken Shale helped shed some light on the mysterious uptick in global ethane emissions observed over the past few years.

“The Bakken on its own cannot explain the complete turn, but it plays a really large role in the change in the global growth rate,” Kort said.

On a regional level, the researchers pointed out that a deeper investigation into the Bakken emissions impact on ozone formation may be warranted — not only for the purpose of analyzing local air quality but also because current models of the atmosphere have not included the jump in ethane output.

Because the researchers were also measuring other gases during the flyovers — including ozone, carbon dioxide and methane — they were able to make another major discovery. They found that the ratio of ethane to methane produced by the Bakken was much higher than what has been observed in many other shale oil and gas fields in the United States — an observation that could have big implications for future methane assessments, which are important for climate scientists.

In many oil and gas fields, methane is often the primary natural gas present — sometimes accounting for up to 90 percent or more of the gas that is released during extraction. Ethane often tends to be present in smaller proportions. In the Bakken, however, the researchers found that ethane accounted for nearly 50 percent of all the natural gas composition, while methane was closer to 20 percent.

This is important because researchers sometimes use trends in global ethane emissions to make assumptions about the amount of methane that’s being released by fossil fuel-related activities. While it’s possible to measure the total methane concentration in the atmosphere, it’s difficult to say exactly where that methane came from, because there are so many possibilities: thawing permafrost in the Arctic, emissions from landfills and agriculture are just a few examples. But because ethane is primarily emitted as a byproduct of fossil fuel development — and because methane and ethane tend to be emitted together in those cases — researchers sometimes use trends in global ethane emissions to make assumptions about how much of the Earth’s methane output can be attributed to oil and gas development.

When global ethane emissions were declining, for instance, many researchers assumed that overall losses of natural gas during fossil fuel extraction were declining, Kort noted. And when ethane emissions began rising again, it was logical to assume that methane emissions — from oil and gas development, specifically — were also likely on the rise. But as the Bakken study points out, this is not necessarily the case. The new study suggests that the Bakken formation has accounted for much of the global increase in ethane emissions while emitting comparatively low levels of methane simultaneously. And the researchers believe that there are other locations in the United States — the Eagle Ford shale in Texas, for example — where conditions are similar.

“They’ve basically shown here that a single shale can account for most of the ethane increase that you’ve seen in the past year,” said Christian Frankenberg, an environmental science and engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology and a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Frankenberg was not involved with this study, although he has collaborated with Kort in the past.)

“This is not to say that there’s no enhanced methane in these areas,” he added. But he pointed out that making an incorrect assumption about the ratio of methane escaping compared to ethane “might easily overestimate the methane increases in these areas.”

And making incorrect assumptions about the methane that’s entering the atmosphere alongside ethane can skew climate scientists’ understanding of where the Earth’s methane emissions are coming from and which sources are the biggest priorities when it comes to managing greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, while the new study contains striking findings about ethane emissions, it perhaps only deepens the already large and contentious mystery over just how much the U.S. oil and gas boom is contributing to emissions of methane, which is widely regarded to be the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide.

More broadly, the paper also highlights the immense impact that fossil fuel development in the United States can have on the atmosphere — and how important it is from both an air quality and a climate perspective to closely monitor these activities. As the paper points out, domestic production is already being felt on a global level.

“Ethane globally had been declining from the 80s until about 2009, 2010 … and nobody was really sure why it was increasing in the atmosphere again,” Kort said. “Our measurements showed this one region could explain much of the change in global ethane levels and kind of illustrate the roles these shale plains could play.”