Tag Archives: Montana

With fracking boom and oil trains, big cities fear explosive safety risks

Repost from The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
[Editor:  Significant quote by Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago: “Welcome to the Bomb Train Capital of America…. Of all the suite of issues I work on for the NRDC, this is the scariest…. These are moving targets going through very, very densely populated areas.

RISKY CARGO ON MIDWEST OIL TRAINS

Amid fracking boom, cities fear explosive safety risk it can carry

BY TOM HENRY , BLADE STAFF WRITER, June 1, 2015

CHICAGO — While the global fracking boom has stabilized North America’s energy prices, Chicago — America’s third largest city and the busiest crossroads of the nation’s railroad network — has become ground zero for the debate over heavy crude moved by oil trains.

With the Windy City experiencing a 4,000 percent increase in oil-train traffic since 2008, Chicago and its many densely populated suburbs have become a focal point as Congress considers a number of safety reforms this year.

Many oil trains are 100 or more cars long, carrying hydraulically fracked crude and its highly explosive, associated vapors from the Bakken region of Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

A majority of those trains also cross northwest Ohio on their way to refineries and barge terminals along the East Coast.

Derailments can lead to massive explosions, such as the one on July 6, 2013, when a runaway train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Que., just across the U.S.-Canada border from Maine. The resulting explosions and fire killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district.

“For me to assure my community there’s no risk, I would be lying,” Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner told reporters on the Halsted Station’s elevated platform near downtown Chicago last week. The discussion was arranged by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, a group that promotes better environmental reporting.

Authorities are concerned a rail accident would be catastrophic, as trains are carrying more heavy crude since fracking became popular.
Authorities are concerned a rail accident would be catastrophic, as trains are carrying more heavy crude since fracking became popular. THE BLADE/BRIAN BUCKEY

“A derailment in or around our downtown would be absolutely disastrous,” he said.

One of Chicago’s distant western suburbs, Aurora, with 200,000 people, is the second-largest city in Illinois. Though it has fewer than one resident for every 10 in Chicago (population: 2.7 million), Aurora is somewhat smaller than Toledo, which has 281,000 residents.

Mr. Weisner, whose mayoral office overlooks tracks where many of the oil trains pass going toward Chicago, shrugged when asked about emergency planning.

“That always helps, of course. But you could have a major catastrophe before they could arrive on the scene, and that’s the truth,” Mr. Weisner said, noting the Lac-Megantic explosion on at least three occasions.

Closer to home, he said, are memories of a train explosion on June 19, 2009, in Cherry Valley, Ill., just outside Rockford.

Although that derailment involved a train carrying flammable ethanol — not an oil train — its fire killed a motorist stopped at a railroad crossing, injured seven people in cars plus two firefighters, and forced the evacuation of 600 homes.

Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner fears what would happen if an oil train derails and explodes in an urban area.
Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner fears what would happen if an oil train derails and explodes in an urban area. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY

On March 5, 21 cars of a 105-car BNSF Railway train hauling oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota derailed in a heavily wooded, rural area outside Galena, Ill.

The train erupted into a massive fireball 3 miles from a town of 3,000 people in the northwest corner of Illinois, near the Iowa and Wisconsin borders.

No deaths were reported from that incident and, like several other derailments that have resulted in explosions and fires in recent years, it occurred in a rural area.

Mr. Weisner and others fear it is a matter of time before a much higher-profile incident occurs in Chicago or some other big city where the death toll could be significant.

Shortly after he finished, an oil train moved past Halsted Station, whose tracks are flanked by high-rise apartment buildings.

Oil trains move throughout the Great Lakes region after getting filled with Bakken crude, often ending up on the East Coast.

Chicago and the rest of the Great Lakes region is “the heart of the country,” Mr. Weisner said.

“We’re always going to be at one of the highest levels of exposure,” the Aurora mayor said. “There’s no doubt about it.

This July 7, 2013, photo shows fire fighters watering smoldering rubble in Lac Megantic, Que., after a runaway train derailed causing explosions that killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district.
This July 7, 2013, photo shows fire fighters watering smoldering rubble in Lac Megantic, Que., after a runaway train derailed causing explosions that killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Environmental activists such as Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago, put the risk in more graphic terms.

“Welcome to the Bomb Train Capital of America,” he told reporters outside a coffee shop at West Maxwell and Halsted streets, three blocks north of the train station where Mr. Weisner would speak moments later.

“Of all the suite of issues I work on for the NRDC, this is the scariest,” Mr. Mogerman said. “These are moving targets going through very, very densely populated areas.”

Tony Phillips is an artist who lives in a condominium adjacent to Chicago’s Halsted Station.

He said he can hear “the rip of noise” and feel his building shudder as oil trains come by, often in the wee hours of the morning. He said he feels a “slosh effect” in the flooring from the oscillating weight of crude if he gets up in the middle of the night.

“That’s a little spooky,” Mr. Phillips said.

He and others want reforms, tighter rules, and more robust train cars, if nothing else. Some efforts are being made through tighter regulations, but critics claim they’re either not enough or being phased in too slowly.

Fracking boom

Tony Phillips points to the condo in Chicago where he lives on the other side of the tracks at the Halsted Station, where oil trains pass by.
Tony Phillips points to the condo in Chicago where he lives on the other side of the tracks at the Halsted Station, where oil trains pass by. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY

Lora Chamberlain, spokesman for Frack Free Illinois and a new coalition called Chicagoland Oil By Rail, said vapor removal should be on the list of priorities to help mitigate the risk.

In a May 7, 2014, order, the U.S. Department of Transportation called for state emergency responders to receive more information about railroad routes handling 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil per week because the number and type of railroad accidents “is startling.”

In 2013, America moved 8.3 billion barrels (348.6 billion gallons) of crude oil via pipeline — nearly 29 times the 291 million barrels (12.2 billion gallons) moved by rail, according to data from the Association of Oil Pipelines and the Association of American Railroads.

Safety experts see North America at a turning point because of the oil and gas industry’s rapid increase in hydraulic fracturing of shale bedrock, a process commonly known as “fracking” that the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts will remain strong for at least the next 30 years.

Fracking has occurred commercially since the 1950s. The game-changer occurred less than a decade ago, when a technique developed to combine horizontal drilling with fracking made it economical to go after vast reserves of previously trapped oil and natural gas worldwide — including in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, where the Utica and Marcellus shale regions meet.

Rail traffic

Railroads moved 493,126 tank-car loads of oil in 2014, a nearly 5,200 percent increase over the 9,500 tank cars that hauled oil before the fracking boom began to hit its stride in many parts of North America in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of State. Before the fracking boom, rail shipment of crude was rare and generally confined to a few isolated corridors where pipelines hadn’t been built.

Overall domestic crude production has risen 70 percent during that same period. U.S. Energy Information Administration figures show domestic oil produced at a rate of 8.5 million barrels a day in 2014, up from 5 million barrels a day in 2008.

Mogerman
Mogerman | THE BLADE/ BRIAN BUCKEY

This year, crude is expected to be produced at a rate of 9 million barrels a day, just shy of its peak rate of 9.6 million barrels a day in 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“While pipelines transport the majority of oil and gas in the United States, recent development of crude oil in parts of the country under-served by pipeline has led shippers to use other modes, with rail seeing the largest percentage increase,” a Government Accountability Office report said. “Although pipeline operators and railroads have generally good safety records, the increased transportation of these flammable hazardous materials creates the potential for serious accidents.”

The agency cited a need for better U.S. Department of Transportation rules on flammability of products shipped by rail and a greater emphasis on emergency preparedness, “especially in rural areas where there might be fewer resources to respond to a serious incident.”

In its 2015 forecast, the Association of American Railroads contends railroads “are making Herculean efforts” to improve “an already safe nationwide rail network” now crisscrossing some 140,000 miles of the country.

The trade association said freight railroads plan to spend a record $29 billion in 2015 — a staggering $3 million an hour or about $79 million a day — to rebuild, maintain, and expand America’s rail network. Much of the money will go toward new equipment and locomotives, new track and bridges, higher tunnels, and newer technology.

Freight railroads are expected to hire 15,000 more people this year, continuing its upward hiring trend for an industry that employs 180,000 people, the association said.

While considering safety reforms, Congress must ensure that “any changes to public policy still allow railroads to continue private infrastructure spending and other network investments needed to meet customer demand,​” the industry group said.

 

 

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    Alberta election could send tremors through Montana economy

    Repost from The Missoulian
    [Editor:  Pay attention to Alberta!  Changes there will send ripples all along the rails in the U.S., from the Upper Midwest to the East Coast, West Coast and Gulf Coast.  Congratulations to Rachel Notley and the New Democratic Party!  – RS]

    Alberta election could send tremors through Montana economy

    By Rob Chaney, May 09, 2015 5:30 pm
    Rachel Notley
    Alberta New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley speaks on stage Tuesday night in Edmonton after being elected Alberta’s new premier. The NDP won a majority in the provincial Legislative Assembly by toppling the Progressive Conservative colossus that has dominated the province for more than four decades. Photo: NATHAN DENETTE, Canadian Press

    Montana’s political seismograph didn’t rattle much last Tuesday when its neighbor to the north underwent a governmental earthquake.

    But that could change in the coming weeks, as the citizens of Alberta absorb the magnitude of their replacement of Canada’s longest-standing political party rulers with a left-wing opposition pledged to look hard at its energy economy.

    “The Progressive Conservative Party has been in power two years longer than I’ve been alive,” said University of Montana biology professor Mark Hebblewhite, a 42-year-old Alberta native. “I think this is a real response to the ongoing mismanagement of Alberta’s bounty. One thing that hit the nail on the head was how the province went from being overrun with money to crashing in another bust. People get really tired of it.”

    The New Democratic Party took 53 seats in the Alberta Parliament in Tuesday’s election. Another traditional minority group, the Wildrose Party, surprisingly found itself in second place with 21 seats. The Progressive Conservatives held onto just 10 seats.

    NDP party leader Rachel Notley was credited for a remarkable political ground game that unseated Progressive Conservative Party leader Jim Prentice – a man widely considered a future leader of all Canada. Prentice resigned from his post on election night and said he was at least temporarily leaving politics.

    Alberta’s entire United States border runs along Montana, from the western edge of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park to the 110th Meridian north of Havre. The province and state share the spine of the Rocky Mountains and the beginnings of the great mid-continental prairies.

    They also share a relatively recent surge in energy development. Over the past decade while Montana has exploited its Bakken oil and gas fields along the border with North Dakota, Alberta has been opening massive production in tar sands petroleum near Fort McMurray.

    Oil from the tar sands has become both a political and social controversy.

    New Democratic Party officials have questioned the need for the Keystone XL pipeline that would run south from Alberta, through a corner of Montana and down to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. The Obama administration has stalled permitting of the international border crossing, while Montana’s bipartisan congressional delegation has supported it.

    “If the Keystone XL doesn’t happen, the amount of rail traffic leaving Alberta would be impacted significantly from that decision,” said Bentek Energy senior analyst Jenna Delaney. “Currently, taking the Keystone XL out would increase petroleum unit trains by five a day out of Alberta. And Transport Canada officials say residents in Canada are very concerned with rail traveling through their communities.”

    Moving petroleum by rail has become an issue in both Canada and the United States, signposted most recently by last week’s explosion of a group of oil tank cars near Heimdal, North Dakota.

    Caryn Miske of the Flathead Basin Commission said the prospect of moving more oil trains along the southern border of Glacier National Park is under close scrutiny.

    “We’re already seeing impacts from the amount of oil that’s moving around,” Miske said. “The number of trains and cars carrying oil has increased, and that’s really concerning, considering how many near-misses we’ve had.”

    Burlington Northern Santa Fe has a freight line that runs out of Alberta into Montana at Sweet Grass, although there’s not much cross-border oil traffic there yet.

    ***

    Delaney said another factor of the government change could be the NDP’s campaign pledge to revamp the province’s tax structure on energy development.

    “They’re looking at increasing income taxes and royalty rates to corporations, which the oil companies aren’t happy about,” Delaney said. “The last time I was in Calgary, the atmosphere was already a little bleak. If taxes are raised on corporations, I don’t know how they might respond. Companies with offices in other places might shift people away from Calgary.”

    Much of the province’s energy economy has extremely expensive initial start-up costs. Energy analysts have already been forecasting a drop in Albertan oil production as new projects slip below their break-even points with falling oil prices.

    Delaney said that could have an impact on Montana’s economy, as the demand for megaloads of oil field equipment transported across the state stalls.

    Longtime conservation activist Stephen Legault said the provincial government’s failure to manage its oil wealth led to great voter frustration.

    “We’re drilling 20,000 wells a year in Alberta, and we’re $7 billion in the hole economically,” Legault said. “That’s largely because when oil goes below $75 a barrel, provincial coffers take a massive hit.”

    The result has been a government unable to fix damage from the floods that ravaged Calgary in 2013, or even to send land management officials to cross-border conferences in Montana.

    While the new government has majority control of Alberta’s Parliament, its influence over the provincial agencies could be a murkier matter. Those departments have had decades of one-party control appointing their directors and staffs.

    “If I was south of the border looking north, I wouldn’t expect to see anything dramatic right away,” Legault said. “We’ve had five changes of government since 1905. The bureaucracy is so deeply entrenched after 45 years of one-party rule, it’s going to take years for a new government to put in place the people it wants to create change.”

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      Swinomish tribe sues to permanently ban Bakken oil trains

      Repost from The Seattle Times

      Swinomish tribe sues to block Bakken oil trains

      A federal lawsuit filed by the Swinomish Indian tribe seeks to ban BNSF Railway from transporting Bakken crude oil across tribal lands. The line in question carries oil trains to the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes.

      By Hal Bernton, April 7, 2015 at 8:37 pm, Updated April 8, 2015 at 12:10 pm
      A view of the Tesoro refinery, as seen from Cap Sante lookout in Anacortes. Photographed on July 16, 2012. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)
      A view of the Tesoro refinery, as seen from Cap Sante lookout in Anacortes. Photographed on July 16, 2012. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

      The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community on Tuesday went to federal court to block BNSF Railway from sending 100-car oil trains through reservation lands, claiming the company is violating an easement that sharply restricts rail traffic.

      The easement signed by the railway’s predecessor company in 1991 permits only two trains a day of 25 cars or less from transiting the reservation. It also calls for the railroad company to get permission from the tribe to increase traffic.

      The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle asks the court to permanently ban the railroad from shipping Bakken shale crude oil across tribal land, asserting that the railroad never sought permission for the oil trains.

      “A deal is a deal,” said Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby in a statement released Tuesday. “Our signatures were on the agreement with BNSF, so were theirs. So was the United States. But despite all that, BNSF began running its Bakken oil trains across the reservation without asking, and without even telling us.”

      The Swinomish rail line that traverses tribal land on Fidalgo Island enables trains to reach a Tesoro refinery in nearby Anacortes.

      A BNSF spokesman, in a statement released Tuesday said, “We have received the complaint and are reviewing it.”

      The tribal lawsuit is part of an intensifying backlash in Washington and elsewhere in North America against shipping Bakken shale crude from North Dakota and Montana. Production from those fields has surged with the development of new fracking techniques.

      Since 2013, a series of train derailments resulted in fiery explosions of Bakken crude, with four of those accidents occurring since early February. Bakken crude has a higher volatility than many other crudes, due to elevated levels of gases such as ethane, propane and butane

      At Seattle’s Emergency Operations Center on Tuesday, Mayor Ed Murray, King County Executive Dow Constantine and other officials joined U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to discuss threats posed by these accidents.

      “In Canada nearly two years ago, a mile-long train derailed and the ensuing explosion cost 47 people their lives,” Cantwell said. “That blast leveled a half-mile radius. If that happened in Seattle, the effects would be catastrophic.”

      “In Seattle, an incident of this type could impact tens of thousands of residents.”

      Cantwell introduced legislation last month that would require the federal Transportation Department to regulate the volatility of crude oil shipped by trains.

      The bill also would increase funding for first responders and require more disclosures from railroads about train routes. The railroads would also have to plan for worst-case derailment scenarios.

      In Washington last year, up to 19 trains a week crossed parts of the state with crude oil that ends up at state or California refineries.

      Some of those trains now cross Swinomish lands on the way to the Tesoro refinery. The number of those trains could rise if Shell gets approval for a rail facility at its refinery in Anacortes.

      As the trains move through tribal lands, they pass close by a casino, a lodge and other development.

      “Based on the demonstrated hazards” of Bakken shale crude, the tribe is “justifiably and gravely concerned” with the oil shipments, the lawsuit asserts.

      The railroad’s 1991 easement across the reservation lands resulted from the settlement of an earlier tribal lawsuit that alleged that BNSF’s predecessor company was trespassing on their lands with its trains during most of the past century.

      The settlement called for periodic railroad disclosures “as different products, or commodities, are added or deleted.” It also called on the tribe not to “arbitrarily withhold permission to increase the number of trains or cars when necessary to meet shipper needs.”

      The crude-oil shipments across tribal lands began in late 2011, but tribal officials said they were never informed in advance, and have never authorized that train traffic.

      “We told BNSF to stop, again and again,” Cladoosby said. “It’s unacceptable for BNSF to put our people and our way of life at risk without regard to the agreement we established in good faith.”

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