oil by rail

Thu, 2014-04-10 08:37Justin Mikulka
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Oil-By-Rail Scrutiny Ratchets Up Across United States

Two years ago, trains snaked through American towns and cities day and night often without residents, or even city officials, knowing they were carrying explosive crude oil from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota.

But now — after four serious oil train explosions in the US and Canada — the issue has exploded into public consciousness, with citizens and governments across the country raising questions about whether it’s safe to transport the flammable or explosive petroleum products through residential neighborhoods. 

Recently we have seen some major developments in the national discussion about moving oil by rail in the United States.

Yesterday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told Congress that his agency is committed to pressing the oil-by-rail industry to come up with a safer tank car design for unconventional oil. “My target date is as soon as possible,” Foxx said, although he would not commit to a hard deadline for stricter standards when pressed by the Senate Appropriations committee.

Fri, 2014-03-28 06:26Justin Mikulka
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Feds Weaken New Oil-By-Rail Safety Regulations Days After Announcing Them

Oil train in Montana

Nine days after announcing new regulations designed to improve oil-by-rail safety, the Department of Transportation quietly weakened the rules for testing rail cars and exempted shippers of bitumen from having to meet the new regulations.

The department had been under pressure from industry since announcing new regulations in response to a round of testing on shipments of Bakken crude oil that found companies had classified crudes as less hazardous than they were in 11 of 18 rail cars.

The tanker cars that exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July of 2013 were also carrying Bakken crude that was misclassified.  The result of these errors is that first responders can arrive at a scene and expect a crude oil fire and instead find a “river of napalm”, as they did in Lac-Megantic.

Thu, 2014-03-27 04:18Justin Mikulka
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Oil Shipments Turn Albany Into “Houston on the Hudson” As Communities Across Country Fight Oil-By-Rail Proposals

Albany oil protest

Due to a massive increase in the movement of crude oil by rail in the past few years, communities across the country are facing the daunting prospect of becoming part of the oil industry’s infrastructure.

In Pittsburg, Calif., there is strong opposition to a proposed rail facility slated to bring in upwards of 242,000 barrels of Bakken crude daily. The state’s draft environmental review finds “significant and unavoidable risks of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, spills and accidents,” justifying resident’s concerns.

Meanwhile, Albany, N.Y., has quietly become home to increased oil shipments without any environmental review. A rail facility is currently receiving between 20 and 25 percent of the Bakken crude from North Dakota. As Trisha Curtis, an analyst at the Energy Policy Research Foundation, puts it, “Albany has become a big hub.” This has led to local residents referring to Albany as “Houston on the Hudson.”

In a victory for local residents, earlier this week New York’s environment agency announced it would require Global, the company proposing a heating facility for heavy crude at the Port of Albany, to disclose the source of the oil. 

Fri, 2014-03-14 13:29Justin Mikulka
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Why Nothing Will Happen On Oil by Rail Safety

In the past month, there have been numerous public relations efforts suggesting that much is being done to improve oil by rail safety. Unfortunately, it seems these efforts will not involve much more than press releases and hollow promises, as regulators have made no meaningful changes to a broken and ineffective regulatory system.  

That approach, combined with the realities of the rail tank car industry, basically ensure that oil will be transported in the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars for many years to come, despite testimony at a recent congressional hearing from Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Sumwalt testified that, “multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk.”  

Unacceptable to the public, but apparently perfectly acceptable to the industry.

Thu, 2014-02-27 12:38Justin Mikulka
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Bureaucrat Ducks Vital Question on Flawed DOT-111 Tank Cars at Oil By Rail Safety Hearing

On Wednesday February 26th, the long-awaited congressional hearing on oil-by-rail safety finally occurred. The main portion of the hearing featured representatives from the relevant government agencies as well as industry, such as the American Petroleum Institute’s President and CEO, Jack Gerard.  

For those following crude-by-rail safety, there are several pressing issues, but the one question everyone wants to know the answer to is when will the government stop allowing the inferior and unsafe DOT-111 tank cars to be used to ship crude oil?  

At the hearing, Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB
testified that “multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk.”

Not much of substance was covered in the hours-long hearing but there was one exchange between Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Cynthia Quarterman, the Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), that shed light on where this all stands.  

Congressman DeFazio asked the question about the DOT-111s several times — and Administrator Quarterman refused to answer several times. The video below highlights the heated exchange which ends with Congressman Defazio cutting off Adminstrator Quarterman mid-sentence as it is clear she is not going to answer, thus highlighting the extent of the problem.  



The one official who can actually make something happen when it comes to improving rail car safety refuses to answer questions on when that might get done, despite the fact that the flaws in the existing DOT-111 tank cars have been known for over a decade and members of congress have been requesting this hearing for over six months. 

Tue, 2014-02-25 11:37Justin Mikulka
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Past Time to Close Loophole That Exempts Oil by Rail Companies from Spill Response Planning

In 2013, with the rapid expansion in the use of rail to transport crude oil, we learned that there was a huge increase in the the amount of oil spilled as a result of rail incidents.  

Just two weeks ago, a train
derailed near Pittsburg and spilled 4,000 gallons.  More than 1.15 million gallons of crude spilled from rail cars in 2013.  And this does not include the 1.6 million gallons that spilled in July of 2013 in Lac-Megantic in Canada.   

To put this in perspective, the 2010 Marshall Michigan Pipeline spill — currently the largest and most costly spill on land in US history according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — only spilled 843,000 gallons.

These rolling unit trains of crude oil can be carrying over three million gallons of crude oil at one time. The train that derailed and exploded in Aliceville, Alabama in November 2013, was
carrying 2.7 million gallons of Bakken crude oil.  

However, as noted in the recent NTSB recommendations, thanks to a loophole in regulations set up in 1996, the companies transporting this oil by rail are exempt from having comprehensive spill response plans.  According to the January 23, 2014 Safety Recommendation from the NTSB (link to PDF):

oil spill response planning requirements for rail transportation of oil/petroleum products are practically nonexistent compared with other modes of transportation.”

Estimates are that 90% of the oil produced in the Bakken fields in 2014 will be transported by rail. This is up from a rate of 63% in September of 2013.  And as the NTSB notes, current regulations do not require the companies moving this crude to have comprehensive spill response plans despite the amounts of crude oil they are moving.

Thu, 2014-01-30 12:47Justin Mikulka
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New York Governor Cuomo Issues Executive Order on Oil by Rail Safety

Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing several state agencies to review the risks posed by trasportation of crude oil by rail in New York. This issue has recently gained attention in Albany as the public has become aware of the large amounts of Bakken crude oil being shipped into Albany by rail, where it is then transferred to tankers that travel down the Hudson River.  

The Governor’s order requests many relevant actions but also acknowledges that most of this is under federal jurisdiction and thus there isn’t much the state can do about it.  Much of what the Governor is requesting has been suggested by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) many times over the years, as the agency did again this past week.

The new suggested NTSB changes have the support of the American Association of Railroads. However, the companies that actually would be responsible for most of the costs associated with improving rail car safety are the oil companies themselves. The American Petroleum Institute responded to the new safety regulations
by pointing the finger at the rail companies, stating that, “the first step is to prevent derailments by addressing track defects and other root causes of all rail accidents.”

And the dance that has gone on around this issue for years continues on, resulting in more press releases, but no action.

Here is a video I produced about the oil by rail issue in New York: 


Thu, 2014-01-23 10:19Guest
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David Suzuki: Rail Versus Pipeline Is The Wrong Question

This is a guest post by David Suzuki.

Debating the best way to do something we shouldn’t be doing in the first place is a sure way to end up in the wrong place. That’s what’s happening with the “rail versus pipeline” discussion. Some say recent rail accidents mean we should build more pipelines to transport fossil fuels. Others argue that leaks, high construction costs, opposition and red tape surrounding pipelines are arguments in favour of using trains.

But the recent spate of rail accidents and pipeline leaks and spills doesn’t provide arguments for one or the other; instead, it indicates that rapidly increasing oil and gas development and shipping ever greater amounts, by any method, will mean more accidents, spills, environmental damage – even death. The answer is to step back from this reckless plunder and consider ways to reduce our fossil fuel use.

If we were to slow down oil sands development, encourage conservation and invest in clean energy technology, we could save money, ecosystems and lives – and we’d still have valuable fossil fuel resources long into the future, perhaps until we’ve figured out ways to use them that aren’t so wasteful. We wouldn’t need to build more pipelines just to sell oil and gas as quickly as possible, mostly to foreign markets. We wouldn’t have to send so many unsafe rail tankers through wilderness areas and places people live.

Tue, 2014-01-21 17:35Mike G
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Wall Street Journal Investigation: High-Tech Oil Pipeline Monitors Catch Less Than 20 Percent Of Leaks

Last September, a farmer harvesting wheat in North Dakota smelled crude oil in his fields. That was the first indication anyone had that a Tesoro pipeline had ruptured and spewed some 20,000 barrels of oil into the environment.

Tesoro says it has beefed up its monitoring of the pipeline, as the pressure sensors it had installed before the spill did not detect the slow seep of oil, even though it had soaked a surrounding area the size of six football fields.

This may sound like an outlier case, but as it turns out, it is pretty much the industry standard. According to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal, it is all too common that oil companies are the last to know when their pipelines spring a leak.

Coming just a week after Canada’s foreign minister traveled to Washington, D.C., and called on the Obama administration to make a decision on Keystone XL pipeline, the results of the paper's analysis contradict the oil industry’s claims that the safety of pipelines can be ensured through existing measures.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which looked at Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data on 251 spills that occurred on private property since 2010, the industry's pipeline monitoring equipment was the first to detect a leak in just 19.5 percent of incidents.

The other 80 percent of the time leaks are generally discovered by people — local residents and landowners, like that North Dakota wheat farmer, as well as on-site employees of the oil and pipeline companies.

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