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Oil On the Tracks: How Rail Is Quietly Picking Up the Pipelines' Slack

We’ve talked a lot here on DeSmogBlog about oil (and tar sands crude) pipelines. You know, like the Keystone XL, which TransCanada is currently ramming through Texas, using whatever means necessary (including violence), and Enbridge's Northern Gateway, which was just declared “dead” by one of Canada's top newspapers.

And we’ve talked quite a bit about coal trains. All for very good reason. But we haven’t ever delved into the growing trend of shipping oil by train. Trains are a crucial – and growing – part of oil industry infrastructure, so it’s worthwhile to take a step back and get some perspective on this remarkable system. Understanding oil trains will help you understand, for instance, why oil markets are paying little attention to the pipeline debates.

Let’s start with the raw numbers.

Every week, over 17,000 carloads of oil are shipped in the U.S. and Canada. With roughly 600 to 700 barrels of oil in each carload, that’s between 1.4 and 1.6 million barrels of oil on the U.S. and Canadian rails every day. And these numbers are growing fast. This chart says it all.

Congressional Report: Impacts of Climate Pollution "A Cocktail of Heat and Extreme Weather"

Ranking members of the House Committees on Natural Resources and on Energy and Climate released a joint report earlier this week that traces the imprints of climate change on recent extreme weather patterns.

With Going to Extremes: Climate Change and the Increasing Risk of Weather Disasters (pdf), Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) continue to forge ahead in their roles as the most outspoken and honest members of the House when it comes to climate change. Unfortunately, they stand alone even in the critical committees on which they sit: the report includes a front page disclaimer that it “has not been officially adopted by the Committee on Natural Resources or the Committee on Energy and Commerce and may not necessarily reflect the views of its Members.” 

Going to Extremes opens with a quote by University of Arizona climatologist Dr. Jonathan Overpeck:

This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

It then proceeds to catalog the worst of the devastating weather trends of late, connecting the dots between these impacts and the greenhouse effect.

The Fossil 47 Percent: Freeloading Energy Companies That Pay No Income Taxes

Mitt Romney has nothing but disdain for fossil fuel companies. At least those freeloaders that are “dependent on government” and “pay no income taxes.” This is true if you believe Romney's very own words and some very circular logic. Follow along:

According to Romney, his “job is is not to worry about” those 47 percent of Americans that don’t pay income taxes.

And of course we know that, according to Romney, “corporations are people,” too. So reason dictates that if a corporation isn’t paying income taxes, it’s not Mitt Romney’s job to worry about them.

Someone tell that to the 33 energy companies in the S&P 500 that paid either paid no income taxes at all or actually received a tax return last year.

Army Corps Fast Tracks Port of Morrow Coal Export Terminal

The Army Corps of Engineers has decided that the transfer of coal from trains onto barges in Oregon’s Columbia River is not worthy of a full environmental impact study. For now.

At issue is the Morrow Pacific Project, a coal transfer facility that is a key pivot point in Ambre Energy’s plans to export American coal to Asia. We’ve covered this project before (here's all the background on the Morrow Pacific Project), as well as the broader strategy of coal companies to ship American coal – much coming from taxpayer-owned public lands – off to China and other overseas buyers.

Basically, Ambre Energy (an Australian coal and shale company) is planning on shipping coal by train from the strip mines in the Powder River Basin to this Morrow Pacific facility at the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon. There the coal would be offloaded onto barges – at the rate of two per day at full capacity – which would then float down the Columbia River to Port Westward (roughly 30 miles north of Portland), where it would again be transferred onto massive Panamax vessels for shipment to Asia.

No Breakthroughs Necessary: 95 Percent Renewable Energy Possible By 2050

Shutterstock | James Steidl

It’s a commonly held belief, even within the climate action advocacy community, that significant technological breakthroughs are necessary to harness enough clean, renewable energy to power our global energy demands.

Not so, says a new study published this month, which makes an ambitious case for “sustainable sources” providing 95 percent of global energy demand by mid-century.

This new analysis, “Transition to a fully sustainable global energy system,” published in Energy Strategy Reviews, examines demand scenarios for the major energy use sectors – industry, buildings, and transport – and matches them up to feasible renewable supply sources.

Over on VICE’s Motherboard, Brian Merchant dug into the study and put it into proper context.

It is entirely possible, using technologies largely available today, to power nearly the entire world with clean energy—but we need to conjure the will to make revolutionary strides in public policy and the scale of deployment.

First U.S. Tar Sands Mine: Six Years Digging Up Sixty-Two Acres...For Just 6 Hours Worth of Oil

Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

How much oil can we expect to get out of the very first tar sands mine on American soil? About six hours worth.

That’s how long the 4.7 million barrels of bitumen that U.S. Oil Sands Inc plans to extract from a 62-acre mine in eastern Utah would sate our American oil demands.  

Back in April, I wrote about the prospects of tar sands mining in the American West.

As DeSmogBlog readers are well aware, tar sands are being aggressively extracted up in Canada – turning about 35 million acres of Alberta boreal forest into a wasteland – but up to this point, U.S. tar sands have been kept in the ground. A couple of Canadian companies are working to change that, and one, U.S. Oil Sands, has just cleared its last major legal hurdle to open up its first mining operation, the “North Pit” of the so-called P.R. Spring lease in the Uintah Basin in eastern Utah’s Colorado Plateau region.

Romney's "Oil Above All" Energy Plan Short on Variety, and on Energy



Last Thursday, Mitt Romney presented his “oil above all” energy plan, in which he promised “North American energy independence” by 2020. Far from comprehensive, the plan echoes the familiar “Drill, Baby, Drill” mantra from the 2008 presidential campaign, and offers no energy strategy beyond increasing domestic production of oil and gas, and increased access to Canadian tar sands crude.

Proving his devotion to “oil above all” was the graph that the presidential hopeful presented while unveiling his plan to a “modest crowd” in New Mexico. As far as graphics go, it's  confused and misleading, so let me walk you through it in case you missed CNN's live coverage.

Though it's titled “North American Oil Production: Energy Independence by 2020,” the demand line represents only the United States' oil needs. Hey, at least the Romney team doesn't anticipate our oil consumption to rise over the next eight years.

"Goliath" Melting Year Shatters Records in Greenland

It’s been a “Goliath,” record-setting melting year in Greenland, home of the world’s second largest ice shelf. On August 8th, a full four weeks before the end of “melting season,” cumulative melting on the island had exceeded the previous record set in 2010, which included the full season.

The record melt was figured by the “cumulative melting index,” created by researcher Marco Tedesco of The City College of New York’s Cryosphere Processes Laboratory to measure the “strength” of the melting season. The index is basically the number of days when melting occurs multiplied by the physical area that is subject to melting.

Tedesco said in a statement, “With more yet to come in August, this year’s overall melting will fall way above the old records. That’s a goliath year – the greatest melt since satellite recording began in 1979.”

Earlier this summer, much was made of a massive melt event on Greenland, during which 97 percent of the island’s ice sheet surface area experienced thaw and melt over a short couple of days. While the event was startling, and a direct result of record high surface air temperatures, this measure of the overall melting is far more alarming.

Federal Investigation: "Complete Breakdown of Safety at Enbridge" Caused Kalamazoo River Tar Sands Oil Spill

It was the most expensive pipeline oil spill in the country’s history, the fallout from which still plagues the local communities, and government investigators have found that it was entirely preventable.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its findings from a two year investigation of the 2010 Enbridge tar sands crude pipeline spill (which DeSmogBlog has covered in depth) that dumped over a million gallons of toxic diluted bitumen (or DilBit) into the Kalamazoo River and its watershed.

Complete breakdown of safety.”

The report draws two very stark, clear conclusions about Enbridge’s culture of safety, or lack thereof.

First, Enbridge had known of corrosion and cracking along the 6B pipeline for five years, but the company refused to make repairs.

“Enbridge detected the very defect that led to this failure (in 2005),” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman, “…Yet for five years they did nothing to address the corrosion or cracking at the site, and the problem festered.” (You can watch video of the NTSB announcements here.)

Second, after the rupture, Enbridge employees had many opportunities to minimize the volume and impact of the spill, but failed repeatedly.

Bloomberg Stunner: How Chesapeake Energy Paid Less Than a 1% Tax Rate On $5.5 Billion in Profits

Chesapeake Energy, a company that is no stranger to financial scandals, has found itself on the front page of the financial papers again. This time, the subject is taxes. Or how Chesapeake barely pays them.  

Over its 23-year history, Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., and the company described by its founder and CEO Aubrey McClendon as “the biggest frackers in the world,” has earned roughly $5.5 billion in pre-tax profits. To date, the company has paid $53 million in taxes. That’s an effective tax rate of under 1 percent - a massive taxpayer subsidy.

The corporate income tax rate in the U.S. is 35 percent. 

The Bloomberg article that exposed these stunning figures is quick to note that this is far less than the 12 percent rate that GE paid in 2010 that caused such public outrage, and even a tiny percentage of the 18 percent effective rate that Google had to answer for.

So how does Chesapeake pull this off? Mostly, it’s due to a rule written in 1916 that allows oil and gas producers to, according to Bloomberg, “postpone income taxes in recognition of the inherent risk of drilling wells that may turn out to be dry.

The break may be outdated for companies such as Chesapeake, which, thanks to advances in technology, struck oil or gas in 99.6 percent of its wells last year.“ When the policy was written, drillers struck “dry wells” roughly 80 percent of the time.

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