Category Archives: Oil trains

First National Conference on Oil Train Threats – excellent report by Justin Mikulka

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event.   Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo.  🙂  For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting.  – RS]

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
oil train conference
Oil Train Response 2015, 1st national conference on oil train threats, 11/14-15/15, Pittsburgh

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.

Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.

In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.

These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz FoundationFracTracker and ForestEthics.

The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.

What You Are Up Against

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.

“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office.  BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’

The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”

This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.

Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.

We Need Not Be Polite

Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.

“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.

“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.

Millar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by the conference audience. As he delivered one of his many hard-hitting lines to applause, an audience member could be heard saying, “He’s like a preacher up there!” However, as repeatedly noted in his presentation, his opinion is that very little is being done to address the risks of oil-by-rail transportation.

They Are Our Children

Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”

As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.”  It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.

FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck

A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.

Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.

While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.

On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.

View from Amtrak train, photo by Justin Mikulka.

A National Movement Begins

The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”

And that is good news for the 25 million people currently living within bomb train blast zones. Because if there is one lesson learned from the long delay over the implementation of positive train control, it is that this battle is likely to be a long and difficult effort.

Blog image credit: Paul Anderson
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    Don’t lift ban on export of U.S. oil

    Repost from the Asbury Park Press

    MEHRHOFF: Don’t lift ban on export of U.S. oil

    OPINION | Jessie Mehrhoff, November 12, 2015 11:21 a.m. EST
    ThinkstockPhotos-495757792
    (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

    It’s the fundamental connection between environmental degradation and human health that has me concerned about the prospect of Congress lifting the U.S. oil export ban, which will worsen climate change and threaten our communities with toxic spills.

    The list of risks climate change poses to human health is long. Increased temperatures will spread tropical diseases to new latitudes. Heat waves will cause more deaths across the world. Warmer temperatures will lead to more health-threatening smog and decrease crop yields. Detailing these impacts and more in 2009, “The Lancet,” one of the world’s most respected medical journals, labeled climate change ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

    These aren’t just future consequences, to be experienced on the other side of the globe. In New Jersey, we still face the impacts of superstorm Sandy three years later. Climate scientists at Rutgers University predict even more extreme weather if climate change goes unchecked.

    In addition to these consequences, the American Lung Association’s 2015 State of the Air report card has given Monmouth County an “F” for the number of high-ozone level days, and finds more than 56,000 people in the county suffer from asthma. Climate change is only going to make numbers such as this climb as our air quality worsens.

    To avoid global warming’s most devastating health impacts, we must end our dependence on fossil fuels and transition to pollution-free, renewable energy. Lifting our decades-old ban on the export of U.S.-produced oil represents the opposite course.

    If the oil companies have a larger distribution market for oil produced in the U.S., they will drill more — upward of another 3.3 million barrels per day for the next 20 years, by some General Accounting Office estimates. Even if only a fraction of all this extra oil is burned, global warming pollution could still increase 22 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of five average-sized coal power plants.

    In addition to worsening climate change, there’s the public health threat of transporting additional oil across the country. While most crude oil is shipped around the U.S. by pipeline, shipments by rail have been increasing. To keep up with increased demand, oil trains have grown larger and tow more tanker cars than ever before.

    Currently, trains carrying highly flammable crude oil travel through 11 of the 21 counties in New Jersey —Mercer, Middlesex, Gloucester, Somerset, Hunterdon, Bergen, Camden, Essex, Hudson, Union and Warren — en route to refineries. These oil trains are an accident waiting to happen, and have spurred trainings across the state where firefighters, police and other emergency responders have prepared courses of action in an oil derailment emergency.

    The fear of oil train accidents — where toxic crude oil is spilled into our communities — is not hyperbole. Accidents have been on the rise, with more oil accidentally dumped into our environment in 2013 alone than during the previous three decades combined.

    In 2015, we’ve already seen three major oil train accidents. In Mount Carbon, West Virginia, a rail oil spill led to evacuations and a governor-declared state of emergency. In Galena, Illinois, a spill threatened to pollute the Mississippi River. A spill in Heimdal, North Dakota, forced the evacuation of a town.

    If we are to prevent these accidents from taking place in the 11 New Jersey counties through which these trains travel, we must work to reduce the amount of oil these trains carry. Transporting the increased oil we would produce domestically if the oil export ban were lifted could require enough trains to span the country from Los Angeles to Boston seven times over.

    Increasing our nation’s crude oil drilling and transportation by lifting our decades’ old ban on exports leads to more risk, not less. And the inconvenient truth of lifting the oil export ban means more drilling, more global warming pollution, and more threats to public health.

    There is a way around lifting the oil export ban in the first place. President Obama is against lifting the ban, and the measure only narrowly cleared a Senate committee earlier in the month. That’s why we need Sen. Cory Booker to join Sen. Bob Menendez in standing strong against the oil industry and to vote to keep the ban in place — for the sake of the environment and public health.

    Jessie Mehrhoff is lead organizer with Environment New Jersey, a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.
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      POEM: “Oil Trains” by Barbara Draper

      Repost from the Minneapolis Star Tribune
      [Editor:  On October 8, 2015, the Star Tribune published Barbara Draper’s incredible, wonderful, beautiful, moving – and frightful – poem, “Oil Trains.”  The Star Tribune gave it their own title, “Slithering into Minneapolis.”   Published here with permission from the author (and reformatted to her specifications).  – RS]

      More tank cars like these seen near Gladstone, N.D., are traveling through downtown Minneapolis. JIM GEHRZ • Star Tribune

      OIL TRAINS

      A slithering line of obsidian tank-cars
      from craven North Dakota
      quakes the freshwater lakes of Minnesota,
      then stuns the Mississippi.

      Now on a neighborhood street in Minneapolis
      it rumbles overhead —

      over a bridge whose stanchions are stamped 1920.
      Concrete crumbled off.
      Ninety year-old steel shoulders the load.

      I hold my breath against the ghost
      like I did as a kid riding my bike past the cemetery.

      Crows of unacknowledged intelligence
      …..Caw
      ………….  ….and dive
      as though raptors were invading their nests.

      – Barbara Draper, Minneapolis
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        U.S. Rep. Lois Capps: Oil-by-rail is too risky

        Repost from the San Luis Obispo Tribune
        [Editor:  See also the follow-up story covering the Cal Poly forum on Oct. 16: “Capps touts clean energy alternatives to Phillips 66 project at Cal Poly forum.”  – RS]

        Phillip 66’s oil-by-rail plan is too risky

        By Rep. Lois Capps, October 13, 2015
        Lois Capps in her office in Washington, D.C.
        Lois Capps in her office in Washington, D.C.

        The Central Coast was thrust into the national spotlight in May as news broke of an oil pipeline rupture that allowed tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean.

        The ensuing damage devastated wildlife and our sensitive coastline, cost our local economy millions of dollars and put the health of Central Coast residents at risk. Sadly, this is just the most recent reminder of the hazards of drilling for and transporting fossil fuels.

        In the months since the spill, I’ve redoubled my efforts to ensure federal agencies update and strengthen pipeline safety standards, prevent new offshore drilling and guarantee that our communities are properly compensated for their losses. And yet, just as the final traces of tar are cleaned from the rocks at Refugio Beach, another serious oil hazard looms on the Central Coast.

        As many know, Phillips 66 has applied for a permit through San Luis Obispo County to construct a 1.3-mile rail spur to the Nipomo Mesa refinery. Construction of the new spur would allow the refinery to receive up to five deliveries of crude oil per week, with 2 million gallons aboard each mile-long freight train.

        This rail spur proposal comes amidst booming North American oil production and a dramatic expansion across the country in the use of railroads to transport crude oil. Not surprisingly, the increased use of rail to transport oil over the last five years has correlated with a sharp increase in the number of derailments by oil-hauling trains. The increase in oil rail derailments is even more troubling considering the large investments made in recent years to improve rail safety.

        The most devastating of these recent accidents occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed in a downtown area and several cars exploded, killing 47 people and leveling half of the downtown area with a blast zone radius of more than half a mile.

        Approving the Phillips 66 rail spur project would put communities throughout California at risk for a similar tragedy. If approved, communities within 1 mile of the rails would be within the potential blast radius of these crude oil freight trains as they make their way to their final destination in San Luis Obispo County. This is one of the many reasons why I am joining other community leaders, cities and counties throughout the state in opposing this project.

        The Plains oil spill near Santa Barbara in May and the Phillips 66 rail spur project debate are both stark reminders of the dangers posed by our continued reliance upon oil and other fossil fuels to meet our energy needs.

        We know that this dependence puts our environment, public health and economy at risk due to spills, derailments and the growing impacts of climate change.

        With each extreme storm, severe wildfire and persistent drought, we’re reminded of the very real consequences of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

        The truth is that an economy that continues to rely upon fossil fuels is not prepared to succeed in the 21st century.

        That is why I have spent my career in Congress advocating for efforts to transition to clean, renewable energy sources that produce the energy we need while also minimizing the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.

        I am proud to say that the Central Coast is leading this transition. With our cuttingedge research universities, two of the largest solar fields in the world and some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and energy companies in the country, I am excited to see what the future holds.

        Now, more than ever, we are presented with a wonderful opportunity to pivot away from our reliance on dirty fossil fuels and toward a more sustainable energy future.

        That is why I am convening a panel of industry leaders and academic experts for a public forum at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center on Friday to discuss how we can continue to expand our clean-energy economy on the Central Coast and across the country.

        During the forum, I look forward to discussing the multitude of threats posed by our continued fossil fuel dependence, the progress made toward developing renewable energy sources, and how we can overcome the remaining barriers to fully transition to a cleanenergy future. Please join us this Friday at 1 p.m. as we come together to build a safer, cleaner energy economy suitable to meet the demands of the 21st century.

         

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