oil by rail

Secretly Approved in Alaska, Will LNG Trains Soon Appear in Rest of US?

Alaska Railroad train crossing a bridge in Alaska

In 2015, a federal rail agency authorized the Alaska Railroad Corporation to ship its first batch of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail in Alaska, but granted this permission behind closed doors, according to documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and provided to DeSmog.

The documents, a series of letters and legal memoranda obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), show that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) may have violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by permitting the shipping of LNG, a highly combustible and flammable material, via rail without any public notification or comment period. The agency granted the Alaska Railroad Corporation a legal exemption under 49 C.F.R. § 174.63(a).

Bakken Oil Now Flowing in Dakota Access Pipeline But Oil Trains to Remain on Tracks

Oil train cars

By Steve Horn and Justin Mikulka

One of the arguments often made for building more oil pipelines is that they will lead to fewer trains hauling oil, with proponents further positing that pipelines are safer than oil trains.

With oil now flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), some analysts and industry lobbyists have predicted that there will be a significant reduction in oil-by-rail traffic from the Bakken region in Montana and North Dakota. That prediction has come despite the fact that Dakota Access owner Energy Transfer Partners actually owns an oil-by-rail facility connecting to the pipeline in Patoka, Illinois, with major Bakken producers such as Hess Corporation saying 30 percent of their oil will still move via rail.

Two Ethanol Trains Derail — and One Explodes — as Industry Embraces Riskier Practices

An ethanol unit train of DOT-111 tank cars.

On March 8, a train pulling 80 tank cars of ethanol derailed in Providence, Rhode Island. Luckily, no ethanol was spilled and no one was injured. However, activists immediately began calling for a halt to these “unit trains” of ethanol into and out of the city, noting the potential risks to the community. Unit trains are longer than average freight trains — often 100 cars or more — dedicated to carrying a single commodity, such as ethanol or crude oil. 

These risks were on display two days later when a unit train hauling 100 cars of ethanol derailed on a bridge in Graettinger, Iowa, approximately 160 miles from Des Moines. This time, 27 of the cars left the tracks. At least eight tank cars ruptured and caught fire, and three tank cars ended up in a creek beneath the bridge, releasing about 1,600 gallons of ethanol into the waterway. 

Dakota Access Owner Says Pipelines Safer Than Rail Yet Owns Rail Hub Connected to Pipeline

Oil train cars sitting on rail tracks

In response to the ongoing battle over the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, the oil industry and the groups it funds have started a new refrain: transporting crude oil through pipelines is safer than by “dangerous” rail.

It's a talking point wedded to the incidents over the past several years which have seen mile-long oil trains derail and even explode, beginning with the 2013 Lac-Megantic oil-by-rail disaster in Quebec, which killed 47 people. These trains were carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin. Bakken crude may be more flammable than other crude oils and is the same oil which would travel through the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), owned by Energy Transfer Partners.

What goes unsaid, however, is that the Dakota Access pipeline actually connects to an oil-by-rail hub, also owned by Energy Transfer Partners, in Patoka, Illinois. Patoka is the end point of this pipeline, where it links to both the rail hub and the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline Project (ETCOP).

Will New LNG-by-Rail Industry Repeat the Mistakes of Oil Trains?

Over and over again, attendees of the 2016 Energy by Rail Conference heard that “LNG by rail is ready to go!”

LNG, or liquefied natural gas, is methane that has been cooled to the point of being a liquid. So, how do we know that shipping this hazardous flammable material on America's aging rail infrastructure is “ready to go”?

Oil-By-Rail Regulators Consider Crude Oil Volatility Limits That Would Require Oil Stabilization

In July 2015, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in Culbertson, Montana resulting in an oil spill of 35,000 gallons — more than the contents of a full rail tank car.

But unlike all of the other Bakken train accidents where large amounts of oil were spilled something odd happened. There was no explosion or fire. 

So what was different about the accident in Culbertson, Montana?

LNG-By-Rail Hits Tracks in Alaska: What Are the Risks and Why the Secrecy?

Alaska Railroad train engine

For the first time ever, liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been shipped by railroad in the U.S., prompting concerns about risks of accidents and a lack of state or federal regulation for the new and hazardous cargo.

The 40-foot long cryogenic tanks owned by the Japanese company Hitachi, built to be transported by rail, truck, and barge, will each carry more than 7,000 gallons of natural gas, which has been chilled down to negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit, from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska. The company Alaska Railroad will do the carrying.

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. 

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. 

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