Spurred by the shale drilling rush that has progressed at breakneck speed, the railroad industry has moved fast to help drillers transport petroleum and its byproducts to consumers. Last year, trains hauled over 400,000 carloads of crude oil, up from just 9,500 carloads in 2008, according to railroad industry estimates. Each carload represents roughly 30,000 gallons of flammable liquids, and some trains haul over 100 oil cars at a time.
But with this fast expansion has come some astounding risks — risks that have insurance companies and underwriters increasingly concerned.
A string of oil train explosions have highlighted the potential for harm. A train hauling 2.9 million gallons of Bakken oil derailed and exploded on November 8 in Aliceville, Alabama, and the oil that leaked but did not burn continues to foul the wetlands in the area.
On December 30th, a train collision in Casselton, North Dakota 20 miles outside of Fargo, prompted a mass evacuation of over half the town’s residents after 18 cars exploded into fireballs visible for miles. 400,000 gallons of oil spilled after that accident, which involved two trains traveling well below local speed limits.
“Those crashes are all on the radar of the insurance industry,” attorney Dean Hansell recently told Law360.
All told, railcar accidents spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil in 2013, federal data shows, compared with an average of just 22,000 gallons a year from 1975 through 2012 — a fifty-fold spike.
Facing enormous opposition to the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, Canada’s tar sands industry is taking to the tracks to get its sticky bitumen to China. Canadian and Chinese oil companies have explored the “pipeline by rail” option for years now, but over the past month, the prospect of tar sands trains has taken a few big steps closer toward reality.
For over a year, Calgary-based Nexen, Inc. has been developing plans to load tar sands crude onto trains for transport to the West Coast, where it would be loaded onto barges and shipped to China. Late last month, the Canadian government approved the sale of Nexen to a nationalized Chinese oil company, and earlier this week, the U.S. government, which has some say because of Nexen’s major operations in the Gulf of Mexico, gave its stamp of approval. According to Nexen, the company now has “all the requisite approvals” and the deal “is expected to close the week of February 25, 2013.” (So much for Canadian tar sands benefiting Canadians first and foremost.)
Rail is considered more and more appealing to industry insiders as numerous plans to ship tar sands crude by pipeline have grown increasingly controversial and have been stalled by climate and private property activists from British Columbia to New England to Nebraska. (See: the Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway, and Trailbreaker/Enbridge Line 9.)
In fact, the industry is growing desperate to find ways to export the heavy Canadian crude, as export pipeline capacity is currently maxed out, causing a glut in supply in Alberta, which is driving down prices and causing, according to the Globe and Mail, “billions in forfeited revenues.”
As demand for coal in the United States has cooled off in recent years, coal mining companies have been scrambling to deliver their dirty loads to customers abroad. But what does this mean for communities along the transportation routes, particularly at the ports and export terminals where the coal is offloaded from trains and onto boats?
The U.S.EPA, for one, is warning of the potential for “significant impacts to public health” in one such port town.
But that’s a small drop in the bucket (or lump in the stocking? sorry, couldn’t resist) of what coal companies hope to export in the very near future. (Farron Cousins covered the coal export trend here on DeSmogBlog earlier this year.)
Nowhere is the push to export coal being felt more than in the Pacific Northwest, where there are currently plans to ship more than 100 million tons each year, according to the Sightline Institute.
Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy.
There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.