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Faces of Fracking – Ed Ruszel of Benicia, California

Repost from Faces of Fracking
[Editor – This is much more than a story about our friend Ed Ruszel.  Author Tara Lohan packs background and detail into this piece like a great storyteller.  Another MUST READ, including almost everything you need to know about crude by rail in Benicia….  (This story also appears on Grist and DeSmogBlog.)  – RS]

Faces of Fracking

Stories from the front lines of fracking in California

Ed Ruszel
Ed Ruszel’s family business is in an industrial park in Benicia, CA, where Valero Energy is hoping to build a new rail terminal at its refinery to accept 70,000 barrels of crude oil a day. (Sarah Craig)

“Business by the Rails” by Faces of Fracking, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Ed Ruszel

Story by Tara Lohan | Photography by Sarah Craig

Ed Ruszel’s workday is a soundtrack of whirling, banging, screeching — the percussion of wood being cut, sanded, and finished. He’s the facility manager for the family business, Ruszel Woodworks. But one sound each day roars above the cacophony of the woodshop: the blast of the train horn as cars cough down the Union Pacific rail line that runs just a few feet from the front of his shop in an industrial park in Benicia, California.

Most days the train cargo is beer, cars, steel, propane, or petroleum coke. But soon two trains of 50 cars each may pass by every day carrying crude oil to a refinery owned by neighboring Valero Energy. Valero is hoping to build a new rail terminal at the refinery that would bring 70,000 barrels a day by train — or nearly 3 million gallons.

And it’s a sign of the times.

Crude by rail has increased 4,000 percent across the country since 2008 and California is feeling the effects. By 2016 the amount of crude by rail entering the state is expected to increase by a factor of 25. That’s assuming industry gets its way in creating more crude by rail stations at refineries and oil terminals. And that’s no longer looking like a sure thing.

Valero’s proposed project in Benicia is just one of many in the area underway or under consideration. All the projects are now facing public pushback — and not just from individuals in communities, but from a united front spanning hundreds of miles. Benicia sits on the Carquinez Strait, a ribbon of water connecting the San Pablo and Suisun Bays in the northeastern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, about 20 miles south of Napa’s wine country and 40 miles north of San Francisco, the oil industry may have found a considerable foe.

The Geography of Oil

The heart of California’s oil industry is the Central Valley — 22,500 square miles that also doubles as the state’s most productive farmland. Oil that’s produced here is delivered to California refineries via pipeline. For decades California and Alaska crude were the main suppliers for the state’s refineries. Crude came by pipeline or by boat. Over the last 20 years imports from places like Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, and Iraq have outpaced domestic production. But a recent boom in “unconventional fuels” has triggered an increase in North American sources in the last few years. This has meant more fracked crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale and diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands.

A Union Pacific train engine is parked in front of the Valero refinery in Benicia, CA. Union Pacific has the final say over the logistics of trains arriving to the refinery. (Sarah Craig)

            “Union Pacific Train” by Faces of Fracking, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Unit trains are becoming a favored way to help move this cargo. These are trains in which the entire cargo — every single car — is one product. And in this case that product happens to be highly flammable.

This is one of the things that has Ed Ruszel concerned. He doesn’t think the tank cars are safe enough to transport crude oil (or ethanol, which is also passing through his neighborhood) in the advent of a serious derailment.

But he’s also concerned not just with the kind of cargo, but the sheer volume of it. If a derailment occurs on a train and every single car (up to 100 cars long) is carrying volatile crude, the dangers increase exponentially. The more trains on the tracks, the more likely something could go wrong. In 2013, more crude was spilled in train derailments than in the prior three decades combined, and there were four fiery explosions in North America in a year’s span.

This risk Marilaine Savard knows well. I met her in February of 2014 when she visited the Bay Area to tell residents about what happened in her town of Lac Megantic, Quebec. The closest word to describe the experience was “apocalypse,” she said, through tears.

Most people by now know of the train derailment that killed 47 people and incinerated half of Lac Megantic’s downtown in the wee hours of the morning on July 7, 2013. The fire was so hot the city burned for 36 hours. Even the lake burned.

We now have term for this: bomb train.

Traffic Jam

Just two days before the disaster in Lac Megantic, Ed joined a community meeting in Benicia about the Valero project. For many residents, it was the first they were learning of it, but Ed had known months before.

In January 2013 a train carrying petroleum coke leaving Valero’s refinery derailed. It was minor — no cargo spilled — but it did rip up a piece of track, and the stalled train blocked the driveway to Ruszel Woodworks for hours. It was one of three minor derailments in the industrial park in the span of 10 months.

Ed came outside to see what the problem was. “The Valero people told me ‘get used to it, because we’re really going to be bringing in a lot of cars soon,’” Ed says. “At that point I really started paying attention and I got really scared.” Ed soon learned about plans for Valero’s new terminal, the 100 train cars that would pass by his business each day, and that it appeared the city was ready to rubber stamp the project — no Environmental Impact Report required.

The fire was so hot the city burned for 36 hours. Even the lake burned.

To explain one of the reasons for his concern, Ed shows me around his property where the lands comes to a V and two rails lines intersect. The main line of Union Pacific’s track passes along the back of Ed’s property, about 75 feet from his building. Here trains can get off the main line and switch to the local line that runs inside the industrial park. The local track passes by the front of Ed’s property, about 20 feet from the building.

The tracks into the industrial park were not designed for a crude by rail facility, Ed says. There are no loops. For Valero to get crude tanks into the refinery, the train must pass by the back of Ed’s property on the main line, pull all the way forward (usually about a mile), and then back up onto the local line, past the front of Ed’s property and into the refinery. The process is reversed when the train leaves. The 100 train cars a day that Valero hopes to bring in will come by his business up to four times per day.

That’s a concern not just because of potential dangers from derailments and diesel fumes from idling trains, but also because the industrial park has a rail traffic problem.

“My big concern here is specifically with the rails — I realize there are other huge environmental issues and global issues with the kinds of fossil fuel production we’re dealing with now and where it’s going,” Ed says.

Already trains servicing the Valero refinery and other industry neighbors can cause traffic nightmares. The trains block driveways to businesses and sometimes major roadways.  An off ramp from Interstate 680 empties into the industrial park. Ed has photos of cars trying to exit the highway but are backed up on the interstate because of train traffic.

The reason has to do with the area’s history.

The tracks that come through the industrial park were not built for industry, but for the U.S. Army.

From 1851 to 1964, part of the land now claimed as an industrial park was home to the Benicia Arsenal. Bunker doors in the hillsides and buildings from the 1800s are part of the area’s colorful history. The rail lines moved around troops and armaments from the Civil War through the Korean War, Ed says, but it’s ill-suited to servicing a busy commercial rail terminal.

The Public Comments

Ed’s family moved their woodworking business to the industrial park in 1980. His brother Jack and their father started the company when Jack was still in high school, and it’s grown to over 20 employees. They’ve always played nice with the other businesses, including the refinery, which was built in 1968 and bought by Valero in 2000.

Ed Ruszel drives by the Valero Refinery, which is about a mile from his family’s woodworking business in Benicia, CA. (Sarah Craig)
  “Valero’s Refinery” by Faces of Fracking, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0  

But the Ruszels felt the crude by rail issue demanded they take a stand. While not aligned with any local activist groups, Ed and other members of his family have spoken publicly about their concerns.

“In some ways, getting outspoken we feel like we’re sticking our neck out,” Ed says. “There are four generations of my family here in Benicia — I’ve got my 80 year-old mother, tiny little grandnieces and nephews, and they all have to live with it. But it is important enough.”

Their voices are part of a growing chorus in the area.

On May 31, 2013 the City of Benicia issued a Mitigated Negative Declaration, which means an initial study by the city concluded there were no significant environmental problems with the project that couldn’t be mitigated.

But many residents felt differently and commented on the initial study or voiced concerns at a July 9 city planning department meeting, which occurred just two days after the disaster in Lac Megantic drove home the reality of a catastrophic accident.

By August the city sided with concerned residents and decided that a draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) needed to be prepared to further review the project. An outside consultant was hired for the job but paid for by Valero. After much delay, the DEIR was released in June 2014 and promptly slammed by everyone from the state’s Attorney General Kamala Harris to the local group Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community because it left out crucial information and failed to address the full scope of the project.

Even the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which represents 22 cities in six counties that are “uprail” from the project, weighed in. It noted the draft EIR doesn’t offer any recommendations for safety measures because it concludes there is no “significant hazard.”

“We believe that conclusion is fundamentally flawed, disregards the recent events demonstrating the very serious risk to life and property that these shipments pose, and contradicts the conclusions of the federal government, which is mobilizing to respond to these risks,” the comment states. It even quotes a U.S. Department of Transportation report from May 2014 that says that Bakken crude by rail shipments pose an “imminent hazard.”

One of the biggest omissions in Valero’s DEIR was Union Pacific not being named as an official partner in the project. With the trains arriving via its rail lines, all logistics will come down to the railroad. Not only that, but the federal power granted to railroad companies preempts local and regional authority.

This preemption is one of the biggest hurdles for communities that don’t want to see crude by rail come through their neighborhoods or want better safeguards. An October 2014 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle lamented, “What’s really crazy is the federal law that allows preemption of municipal and state law when it comes to critical decisions on rail safety. Affected communities deserve a say over what rolls through their towns.” With preemption, that may be impossible.

The DEIR also doesn’t identify exactly what kind of North American crudes would be arriving and from where, deeming it “confidential business information.” Attorney General Kamala Harris called that omission an “overly broad determination of trade secrets.”

Different kinds of crude have different health and safety risks. A pipeline rupture carrying Canadian diluted bitumen in a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 showed that the thick, corrosive crude is much harder (perhaps impossible) to clean up adequately and is different than conventional crude, which sheens on the surface of water. And Bakken crude has proved more explosive than other crudes because of its chemical composition. It’s likely that some of the crude coming to Valero’s refinery would be from either or both sources.

Consider the numbers: In 2013 the total crude by rail brought into California was nearly 6.3 million barrels, and in the first nine months of 2014, the numbers were 4.3 million barrels. The top two sources have been North Dakota and Canada.

Further, the DEIR only examines the risks of a minor derailment along a 69-miles stretch of track between Benicia and Roseville. It doesn’t address the hazards (which could be catastrophic) of the three potential routes that the Union Pacific trains may take entering California, which involve passing over mountains, through tinderbox-dry forests, and along critical water sources.

Just a week ago a train derailed along one such route in the Feather River Canyon. Eleven cars plunged off the track and down the canyon. Had the cargo been crude instead of corn, its contamination could have made its way down the Feather River to Lake Oroville, a reservoir for millions of Californians.

Public comments on the DEIR closed on September 15, and now it’s a waiting game to see what happens next in Benicia. The planning commission will vote on whether to accept or deny the permit for the project. If the commission denies the permit, Valero can appeal to the city council. Either way, it’s likely to end up in court.

Cumulative Impacts

Ed spends his weekdays on land in Benicia and his weekends on the water, sailing out of nearby Richmond. He has shaggy brown hair, a neatly trimmed salt and pepper goatee, and looks every bit the weathered sailor that he is.

Having worked professionally as a boat captain and even as a solo sailor to Hawaii, Ed is a bit overqualified for the nearly windless fall Sunday we set sail with local activist Marilyn Bardet, a member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community.

Ed Ruszel and Marilyn Bardet, an activist with Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, sail outside of the Richmond Harbor to investigate the presence of the oil industry along the Bay Area’s shoreline. (Sarah Craig)
  “Richmond Sailing” by Faces of Fracking, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

Marilyn has been a refinery watchdog in Benicia for years and worries about more than just the transportation of fossil fuels. “For me it’s not only about whether they were going to bring it by rail, but whether they were going to bring it at all,” she says.

Sailing from Richmond, we get a good perspective of how pervasive the oil industry is in this area. We pass a couple of blue and white docked ships with their decals reading “Marine Spill Response.” Ever since the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Ed explains, the industry pays into a fund that keeps ships at the ready in case of an accident.

No such thing exists for the crude by rail industry. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board reported in January 2014, “Current regulations do not require railroads transporting crude oil in multiple tank cars to develop comprehensive spill response plans and have resources on standby for response to worst-case discharges.”

Ed points the bow of the boat toward the Long Wharf in Point Richmond where hulking oil tankers sidle up to be unburdened of their cargo.

We also have a clear view of the large terra cotta-colored storage tanks nesting above neighborhoods in the hillsides of Richmond. These are part of the sprawling refinery operations run by Chevron, but first begun by Standard Oil in 1901.

And it’s not the only refinery around here. In the North Bay, there are five along a 20-mile crescent, with Richmond and Benicia being the bookends. In between, Phillips 66 operates a refinery in Rodeo, and two other refineries (Shell and Tesoro) straddle Martinez.

Residents of these towns have joined in the crude-by-rail fights as well — lending their comments to Environmental Impact Reports, attending community meetings, and joining together for “healing walks” between communities.

Oil storage tanks used by the Chevron refinery in Richmond, CA are seen from the water’s edge. A fire at the refinery in 2012 caused thousands of nearby residents to seek medical treatment. (Sarah Craig)
   “Chevron Refinery By the Bay” by Faces of Fracking, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

The network of support has even extended hundreds of miles south. The Phillips 66 refinery has two parts — one in Rodeo and the other 200 miles away, just outside the town of Nipomo in San Luis Obispo County. A pipeline joins the operations. The refinery has expansion plans that are currently being reviewed. One part of those plans involves building a new rail unloading facility in Nipomo that would bring in five unit trains of crude a week, with 50,000 barrels per train.

But the crude-by-rail projects in the area don’t end there. In nearby Pittsburgh, 20 miles east of Benicia, residents pushed back against plans from WestPac Energy. The company had planned to lease land from BNSF Railway and build a new terminal to bring in a 100-car unit train each day of crude. But WestPac’s plan has stalled after Attorney General Kamala Harris commented on a recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report and said the project had “significant legal problems” and “fails to disclose the sources and analyze the environmental impacts of the new crude.”

Further south in Kern County in the heart of oil country, Plains All American just opened a crude-by-rail terminal that is permitted for a 100-car unit train each day. Another nearby project, Alon USA, received permission from the county for twice as much but is being challenged by lawsuits from environmental groups.

Closer to home, though, unit trains are already arriving. In March, an investigation by local TV station KPIX revealed that Kinder Morgan, a “midstream” company which is in the business of transporting crude (usually by pipeline or rail), received a change of use permit for a rail terminal in Richmond. Kinder Morgan had been transporting ethanol, but the Bay Area Air Quality Management District OK’d Kinder Morgan to offload unit trains of Bakken crude into tanker trucks. KPIX journalists followed the trucks to the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, just across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia.

Aimee Durfee is part of the Martinez Environmental Group. Not only is Martinez flanked by two refineries, but it’s also bisected by Union Pacific rail lines. Now, the residents also know that crude is arriving by truck. “We came to understand that we are collateral damage,” she said. “We get it coming and going.”

Aimee says her group’s biggest fear is the threat of derailment and explosion. The same is true for many Richmond residents near Kinder Morgan’s rail terminal.

“The permit was given illegally by the air district, without concern for the health and safety of the community,” says Andres Soto, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment. “Should there be a catastrophic explosion — there are residences and two elementary schools across the street from the railyard.” He also says that the blast zone in Richmond contains a total of 27 schools. The blast zone is defined as a half mile away for evacuations if there is a derailment and one mile away if there is an explosion and fire.

Train cars are parked at the Kinder Morgan rail facility in Richmond, CA. The facility is currently permitted to offload Bakken crude from unit trains. (Sarah Craig)
  “Rail Terminal” by Faces of Fracking, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

Earthjustice, a nonprofit that litigates on behalf of environmental causes, has led legal efforts trying to block the permit for Kinder Morgan, but in September, Judge James Bush threw out the suit because it was not filed within 180 days of the permit issuance. (The catch-22 of course being that it hadn’t been filed in the proper window of time because no one knew it had even happened, since public notice was not given.)

Earthjustice has appealed Judge Bush’s decision, but residents are continuing to fight the permit in other ways. On October 28, the Richmond City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to review and “if feasible, revoke the permit and subject the project to a complete CEQA process,” which would be a full environmental review.

The Big Picture

With all this crude by rail activity, some big picture thinking would be helpful. As Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote about the Benicia project, “There’s no consideration of cumulative impacts that could affect public safety and the environment by the proliferation of crude-by-rail projects proposed in California.”

Ed has come to a similar understanding. He is focused on the trains passing by his shop, but the process has opened his eyes to a lot more. He’d heard about the impacts of tar sands and Bakken crude but didn’t have a personal connection to it until unit trains began arriving in California.

“Just focusing on what’s happening in my little neck of the woods has led me to spend more time really looking at the big picture,” he said. “The climate is rapidly changing for one reason or another and probably a good portion of it is what we’re doing with the burning of fossil fuels and so forth, especially this rapid extraction.

“I can’t go to New York and demonstrate or deal with the Keystone XL pipeline, but we can look around here, keep our eyes open, and try to articulate what we’re seeing locally,” says Ed.

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BNSF train car derails in Richmond, CA

Repost from The Contra Costa Times
[Editor: see also this NBC Bay Area video news report by Cheryl Hurd.  Apologies for the commercial ad.  – RS]

Burlington Northern Santa Fe car carrying pork derails in Richmond, raising concerns about more hazardous materials

By Robert Rogers, December 3, 2014

RICHMOND — The derailment Friday of a single rail car containing refrigerated pork is under investigation by Burlington Northern Santa Fe officials, who say it occurred during a low-speed movement within its rail yard and suggests no added risk for the rail transport of more hazardous materials in Contra Costa County.

“This was a very minor incident with a single car going less than 10 mph,” BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said. “There are many precautions we take to ensure that 99.997 percent of all hazardous materials we transport reach their destinations without a release caused by an accident.”

The car was being pulled by a locomotive through the yard just west of Richmond Parkway near Pennsylvania Avenue when it tipped over.

Kent said people cut through a chain-link fence soon after and took boxes of refrigerated pork that spilled from the crumpled hull. Empty cardboard Tyson Foods boxes were seen scattered in the neighborhood nearby.

Kent said the incident is under investigation, and she declined to say what may have caused it or whether the line on which the derailment occurred is ever used to transport hazardous materials.

The incident and its aftermath — the car remains broken beside the tracks and will soon be scrapped — has only heightened concerns in a community already on edge over the recent influx of crude-by-rail shipments, much of it from the Bakken region of North Dakota.

City officials last month sent a letter to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District urging the agency to revoke a permit allowing Kinder Morgan to offload Bakken crude and Canadian tar sands oil at its Richmond rail yard, the major draw for local crude-by-rail traffic.

In September, a lawsuit by environmental groups seeking to revoke that permit — which was issued without public notice — was tossed out by a judge on the grounds that it was filed too late.

Kent said BNSF transports two oil-carrying trains per month in California but declined to say exactly where, citing security concerns.

Industry experts expect crude-by-rail traffic to increase in the coming years, as North American oil extraction grows, and the product must be refined in facilities across the United States, including several in Contra Costa County.

Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer, said trains of up to 100 cars travel into Richmond before being transferred to trucks or pipelines to be refined. He noted that cars carrying hazardous materials are more robust than the one that carried the spilled pork, and they would be unlikely to spill in a low-speed derailment.

Nonetheless, “A crude car could tip over also,” Sawyer said. “It’s a possibility.”

Kent said Friday’s derailment does not indicate a wider problem.

“We operate all of our trains with safety as our first priority,” Kent said. “However, when it comes to hazardous material we do have more restrictive operating procedures.”

County Supervisor John Gioia said BNSF officials have told him they are developing “more resilient” cars for crude oil, a development he took to mean that the company expects the crude-by-rail market to continue to grow, and that federal regulators are likely to impose new standards as communities across the country see increased crude-by-rail traffic in their midst.

“Any train derailment concerns me because there could be anything from injury to a larger public safety issue; it’s all important,” Gioia said. “But this new (incident) hasn’t told me anything new other than what we know already based on derailments in other parts of the country: that trains with hazardous materials pose a risk.”

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National Geographic series on Energy: New Oil Train Safety Rules Divide Rail Industry

Repost from The National Geographic

New Oil Train Safety Rules Divide Rail Industry

Many railroad companies want more time to retrofit cars in the U.S. and Canada, but some are forging ahead.
By Joe Eaton for National Geographic, October 31, 2014
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013.
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil and derailed in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013. Regulators in Canada and the United States have been working on new standards for trains that carry flammable fuel. – Photograph by Paul Chiasson, Associated Press

Three days after an oil train derailed and exploded in 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, Greg Saxton wandered through the disaster site inspecting tank cars.

For Saxton, the damage was personal. Some of the tank cars were built by Greenbrier, an Oregon-based manufacturer where he’s chief engineer. Almost every car that derailed was punctured, some in multiple places. Crude oil flowed from the gashes, fueling the flames, covering the ground, and running off into nearby waterways.

Each day, as Saxton returned to the disaster zone, he passed a Roman Catholic church. “We never came and went when there wasn’t a funeral going on,” he said.

In the wake of this and other recent accidents as energy production soars in North America, Canadian and U.S. regulators are proposing new safety rules for tank cars that carry oil, ethanol, and other flammable liquids. Saxton and Greenbrier have pushed for swift changes, but others in the industry are asking for more time to retrofit cars like the type that exploded at Lac-Mégantic. (See related stories: “Oil Train Derails in Lynchburg, Virginia” and “North Dakota Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risks of Transporting Crude“)

“If you don’t set an aggressive time line, you won’t see improvements as quickly as the current safety demands require,” Jack Isselmann, a Greenbrier spokesman, said. “We’ve been frankly just perplexed and confused by the resistance.”

Industry Pushes for More Time

The tank cars that derailed at Lac-Mégantic were built before October 2011, when the American Railway Association mandated safety enhancements to the oil and ethanol tankers known in the industry as DOT-111 cars. The cars lacked puncture-resistant steel jackets, thermal insulation, and heavy steel shields, all of which could have lessened the destruction, experts say.

In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed rules that, if finalized, would require higher safety standards for new oil cars. The rules also require owners to retrofit older cars or remove them from the rails by October 2017.

Canadian regulators in July mandated that DOT-111 tank cars built before 2014 be retrofitted or phased out by May 2017. Transport Canada, which regulates rail safety, has also proposed aggressive safety standards for new tank cars and will seek industry comment this fall before finalizing its rules.

Saxton and others at Greenbrier support the proposed regulations, which could be tremendously lucrative to the company. However, others in the rail supply industry say the proposed retrofit time line cannot be met.

The Railway Supply Institute—a trade organization that represents the rail industry—has asked DOT to allow legacy cars in the oil and ethanol fleet to remain on the rails until 2020.

Thomas Simpson, the institute’s president, said a survey of rail maintenance and repair shops found that only 15,000 of the roughly 50,000 non-jacketed legacy tank cars in the crude oil and ethanol fleet can be modified by the proposed 2017 deadline.

For many cars, the retrofit process would include adding thermal protection systems, thick steel plates at the ends, and outer steel jackets, as well as reconfiguring the bottom outlet valve to ensure it does not break off and release oil during a derailment.

That’s too much work to complete before the deadline, and the regulations have not yet been finalized, Simpson said.

The proposed deadline, he said, will “idle cars waiting for shop capacity and adversely affect the movement of crude and ethanol.”

Tying in the Keystone XL Debate

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and natural gas industry, also says the 2017 deadline to retrofit tank cars is too aggressive and could slow oil and gas production. (See related story: “Blocked on Keystone XL, Oil-Sands Industry Looks East“)

In comments to U.S. regulators and the press, API tied the safety upgrades to approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Alberta’s tar sands oil through the Midwest to Texas refineries.

Workers stand before mangled tanker cars at the crash site of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec
The deadly oil train accident at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, raised awareness of the potential dangers of transporting crude by rail. – Photograph by Ryan Remiorz, Associated Press

If Keystone is not built, API president Jack Gerard said in September that the cost of the proposed oil tank rules would nearly double to $45 billion because demand for transporting crude by rail would be higher.  (See related story and map: “Keystone XL: 4 Animals and 3 Habitats in Its Path” and “Interactive Map: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil“)

Both API and the Rail Supply Institute have also warned regulators that a short time line for retrofitting oil cars could cause a spike in truck shipments of oil and ethanol.

But Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group opposed to Keystone XL, called these arguments misleading. Swift said Keystone XL would have little impact on retrofitting tank cars, because most train traffic from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota moves to East Coast and West Coast refineries. He said that traffic would not be affected by the pipeline.

Keystone XL would have the capacity to carry 830,000 barrels of oil-sands crude a day, with up to 100,000 barrels a day set aside for crude from the Bakken. By 2016, the rail industry in Canada is expected to carry about as much oil as Keystone XL would. The U.S. rail industry is already there: Almost 760,000 barrels a day of crude had traveled by rail by August.

Swift said the costs to the oil industry are worthwhile if lives are saved. “The argument that we need to wait until the oil industry does not need tank cars until we can make them safe is ridiculous on its face,” he said.

Greenbrier Gears Up to Meet Demand

In February, Greenbrier introduced a beefed-up tanker with a 9/16-inch steel shell (1/8-inch thicker than many DOT-111 cars), 11-gauge steel jacket, removable bottom valve, and rollover protection for fittings along the top of the cars.

Greenbrier calls the tanker the “car of the future,” saying it’s eight times safer than the DOT-111. Isselmann said Greenbrier has received more than 3,000 orders for the new car and plans to double its manufacturing capacity by the end of the year.

In June, Greenbrier and Kansas rail-service company Watco joined forces to form GBW Railcar Services, creating the largest independent railcar repair-shop network in North America. Isselmann said the company plans to hire 400 workers and start second shifts at its factories to meet demand for retrofitting DOT-111 tank cars.

In comments to U.S. regulators, GBW said it currently has the capacity to retrofit more than 10 percent of the fleet of DOT-111 tank cars.

Isselmann said that number will grow as other companies take advantage of the market once regulators release final rules. For that reason, he said the industry’s current capacity to meet regulations is less important than its ability to ramp up quickly to capture the increased business that new safety standards could bring.

“This notion that the status quo is going to remain—it’s diversionary at best,” Isselmann said.

An oil tanker car at Lac-Megantic, Quebec
Almost every tanker in the Lac-Megantic accident was punctured. New standards would mandate stronger cars, among other measures. – Photograph by Ryan Remiorz, Associated Press

Some in the industry are responding to public concern before rules are finalized. In April, Irving Oil—the owner of Canada’s largest refinery, in Saint John, New Brunswick, where the Lac-Mégantic train was headed before the disaster—completed a voluntary conversion of its crude oil railcar fleet.

Also in April, Global Partners, one of the largest U.S. distributors of gasoline and other fuels, began requiring all crude oil unit trains making deliveries at its East and West Coast terminals to meet October 2011 safety standards for tank car design.

“As an industry, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to maximize public confidence in the safety of the system that carries these products across the country,” Eric Slifka, Global Partners’ CEO, said in a press release.

A Push to Harmonize Regulations

As the U.S. and Canada consider train safety regulations, oil and rail companies are pushing to ensure that the same tank cars can be used to haul flammable liquids in both countries.

Regulators say they are working together to make that happen. Lauren Armstrong, a spokeswoman at Transport Canada, said the department is holding technical discussions on new tank car standards with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

However, coordinating tank car regulations between the two countries would have to overcome current gaps, industry representatives say.

In April, Transport Canada banned the use of the oldest and least crash-resistant DOT-111 tank cars, which lacked bottom reinforcement.  The U.S. so far has not banned the cars from carrying oil and ethanol.

Canada also set a 2017 deadline for retrofitting the cars. In the U.S., regulators are expected to release final rules by early 2015. The process, however, could continue much longer.

The strongest standards will carry the day, said Thomas Simpson, the president of the Railway Supply Institute. Given the large amount of oil that moves between the two countries, Simpson said it makes no business sense for companies to keep two different sets of cars to meet the two sets of rules.

Communities Concerned About Safety

But as final rules are being hammered out in the U.S., some train safety advocates and community groups worry they are being left out of the process.

Karen Darch, co-chair of TRAC, a coalition of Illinois communities concerned about train congestion and rail safety, said she is hopeful that final rules will include a fast deadline to retrofit old cars. (See related story: “Illinois Village Leads Charge for Tougher Train Rules“)

But she said rail and oil industry lobbyists have had much more access to policymakers than community advocates, and she’s concerned they will have a greater impact on final rules.

“The inside players, the guys in the industry,” she said, “they seem to be able to be in front of the decision-makers more than we have been.”

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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