Justin Mikulka's blog

Ruling by Little-Known Federal Agency Paves Way for Communities to Say No to Oil-by-Rail

Oil tank care behind a fence with sign reading 'Think first'

The community of Benicia, [California,] in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters.” 

That was Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor talking to The Sacramento Bee about the vote by the Benicia City Council to deny a new oil-by-rail facility that oil company Valero was seeking.

But that vote would have been meaningless if not for a recent decision on September 20 by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) that gave Benicia the legal authority to have some say over what happens within its borders. 

Take Two: Albany’s Oil-by-Rail Facilities Must Do New Environmental Review

The people of Albany, New York, got some good news last Friday about their port's oil-by-rail facilities.

“Global Companies must restart its environmental review process, given the significant new information about the benzene levels in Albany’s South End community and the hazards of crude oil transport,” said Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos. “DEC will ensure that this process includes a meaningful and thorough opportunity for public engagement.” 

Global Companies and Buckeye Partners are the two companies operating oil-by-rail facilities at the Port of Albany. While the letter last week was addressed to Global, the DEC has announced both will have to restart the environmental review process.

In 2014 DeSmog reported that the “residents of the Ezra Prentice apartments in Albany, N.Y., have been complaining about air quality issues ever since the oil trains showed up in the Port of Albany two years ago.”

Overloaded: New Rules Allowed for Heavier Bakken Oil Trains

DOT-111 as part of ethanol unit train

This is the third article in a series looking at why oil trains derail at higher rates than ethanol trains. More ethanol was moved by rail from 2010–2015 than oil, but oil trains derail at a higher rate and with more severe consequences. Part one addressed train length as a factor and part two addressed “sloshing.” 

On January 25, 2011, a notice appeared in the Federal Register announcing a change in the rules on allowable weight for a rail tank car transporting hazardous materials. It declared the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) approval to increase this weight limit, bumping it up to 286,000 pounds gross rail load (GRL) from the previous limit of 263,000 pounds.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but this rule change was well-timed for the Bakken oil-by-rail boom that was taking off at that point. Regardless, it had immediate impacts on the ability of the industry to move oil in long unit trains with cars that were heavier than previously allowed. 

Why Do Oil Trains Derail More Often than Ethanol Trains?

Unit train of graffiti covered DOT-111 tank cars.

This is part two in a DeSmog investigative series examining why oil trains derail at higher rates than ethanol trains. More ethanol was moved by rail from 2010-2015 than oil, but oil trains derail at a higher rate and with more severe consequences. Part one addressed train length as a potential factor in derailments

“Sloshing is an issue. It increases in-train forces. It would be like having a heavy box in the back of your SUV that is not tied down. If you have to slam on the brakes, what happens? The box slides forward into the back of the seat in front of it.” 

That was former locomotive engineer and rail safety consultant Bill Keppen describing the effects of “sloshing,” a phenomenon which happens when the liquid contents of incompletely filled rail tank cars start to move — or “slosh” — back and forth during transport. According to Keppen and others in the rail industry, that can potentially increase the chance of a train derailing. 

Bomb Trains: What Can We Learn From Shipping Ethanol to Improve Oil-By-Rail Safety?

Unit train of ethanol in Albany, NY

This article is the first in a series by DeSmog on the safety of shipping ethanol and oil by rail

From 2010 to 2015, the total number of tank cars moving ethanol by rail was more than 1.98 million. That's about 18 percent greater than the more than 1.68 million tank cars of crude oil shipped over the same time period.  

With more ethanol than crude oil moved by rail in recent years, why isn't anyone calling ethanol trains “bomb trains” too?

At Federal Energy Conference, Forecasts Predict Bright Future for Fossil Fuels

This year’s annual Energy Information Administration conference started off on a somewhat positive note with a presentation by Dr. John Holdren, the Obama administration director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren was clear in his presentation that the risks of climate change are real and deserve urgent action. 

He noted estimates of 15 feet of sea level rise being baked in with warming of only 2 degrees Celsius — a target that clearly will be difficult to meet. He commented on the following slide of predicted fossil fuel consumption growth as “very striking” and noted that “There really is no time to lose in shrinking emissions.”

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