Ticking time bombs are rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. Nearly overnight the railways of the west have become primary transport routes for trains filled with highly flammable crude oil. Studies report a 5000-percent increase in oil by rail in North America since 2008. With this rapid increase in traffic has come an enormous uptick in derailments, spills and explosions. It is likely a matter of when, not if, one of these trains spews crude into the Deschutes or Columbia Rivers or explodes in someone's neighborhood.
I first became concerned about oil trains in 2011. As a long-time energy and climate expert and at that time the first lady of Oregon I began researching the logistics and dynamics of oil by rail as well as the options available to states to regulate oil trains. My findings were troubling.
How We Got Here
The reason for the massive expansion in oil train traffic is due to breakthroughs in drilling technology that make it possible to extract crude and natural gas from shale deposits that were previously inaccessible. Through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) highly pressurized fluids are forced deep underground to crack rock and allow trapped gas and oil to be pumped to the surface.
The rapid increase in production outpaced the infrastructure for transporting the crude. Lacking sufficient pipeline capacity to handle the enormous uptick in supply, the oil industry's default option has been to ship the crude by rail in miles' long chains of black tanker cars.
Prior to 2008 very few crude oil tank cars passed through the Pacific Northwest. Today, it's estimated that 25 trains a week travel to refineries in Washington State. Each train consists of approximately 100 cars carrying 700 gallons of oil a piece for a total of 30,000 gallons per train. That's three quarters of a million gallons each week, yet only a fraction of what's being planned.
Until recently the oil coming through the Northwest has been destined for domestic markets. However, in December 2015, the U.S. Congress removed a forty-year ban on exporting oil. This means, the Pacific Northwest, given its proximity to Asia via shipping channels, stands squarely between the most voracious energy markets in the world and huge North American fossil fuel deposits including Powder River Basin coal, Bakken shale oil and the Alberta tar sands.
Oil Train Derailments and Explosions
The massive expansion of oil by rail has led to numerous crashes and spills. According to records from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration 2014 saw a six-fold increase in "unintentional releases" from railroad tankers compared to the average number of spills between 1975 and 2012. In 2013 the 1.4 million gallons of oil spilled in train incidents was more than the total for all oil by rail spills since record keeping began in 1975. These incidents are especially dangerous because most of the crude coming from fracking is far more volatile and flammable than conventional crude sources.
The most sensational and tragic incident occurred in July 2013 when 47 people were killed in an oil train inferno in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Other spills sparked a fireball in Virginia, contaminated groundwater in Colorado and poured across acres of ground in Montana. Based on railroad industry data, more than 25 million Americans live within a one-mile blast and evacuation zone of a potential oil train fire.
Moving Forward from Here
Despite the clear risks associated with oil by rail there are currently plans for massive expansion throughout the Northwest.
According to Eric de Place, Policy Director, for Sightline Institute, "There is currently enough built capacity to handle 300,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil per day. What we know is the industry wants to build the capacity to handle over one million barrels of oil per day, which is way more than we can consume in this region."
There are approximately a dozen proposed fossil fuel export projects in the Northwest. The Tesoro Savage's Vancouver project with a capacity of 360,000 barrels per day, is the largest proposal of its kind in North America. According to some calculations this facility alone could increase oil train traffic through the region five-fold.
Last year the federal government did take some steps to increase the safety of oil trains. This incudes a scheduled phase out of older tank cars with newer models that have stronger shells, valves and protective shields to withstand a collision or derailment. The new regulations also require that tank cars on long trains be equipped with an advanced braking system to cut the time and distance needed to stop.
The Inconvenient Bigger Picture
Preventing a massive oil spill in the iconic Columbia or Deschutes rivers or ensuring that neighborhoods don't blow up in raging firestorms are worthy goals in and of themselves. However, even if rail transport of oil becomes safe there is still a terrible threat.
Research using detailed data and well-established economic models, shows that in order to avoid overshooting the 2 degree Celsius rise in Earth's temperature that would bring cataclysmic consequences we have to keep a lot of the remaining fossil fuel in the ground, unburned.
Research published in the journal Nature builds on these findings by not only explaining how much fossil fuel would need to be left unburned but also showing regional variations. The study reports that meeting the 2C target would require keeping 82% of today's coal reserves in the ground. In major coal producing nations like the US, Australia and Russia, more than 90% of remaining coal reserves would need to remain underground. For natural gas 50% of global reserves must remain unburned. And, a third of all remaining oil must be left belowground. The study suggests that keeping the necessary reserves of fossil fuels in the ground through the most economically viable scenarios would require leaving Canada's tar sands oil virtually untouched.
This means the oil and coal trains plowing through the Pacific Northwest are carrying fossil fuels from the very places that most need to remain un-mined to prevent catastrophic levels of global climate change. Infrastructure isn't a sexy topic but it is one that is crucial to our futures. Just like the baseball stadium in Field of Dreams, if we build it they will come. In this case, they will be more trains carrying more of the fossil fuel that needs to remain in the ground.
The Pacific Northwest, for many good reasons, claims to be a leader in clean energy and climate change action. However that claim is incompatible with allowing our region to become the Gulf Coast of oil train exports. A growing movement is stepping up to this dichotomy.
In British Columbia, Washington and Oregon Native American Tribes, environmental groups, firefighters unions, sports fishers, doctors and public health advocates have all joined the effort to stop the advancement of oil train infrastructure. Sightline Institute has begun calling the region the Thin Green Line. Approximately 20 organizations have formed a coalition called Stand Up to Oil.
There is evidence that this opposition is causing change. Both the Portland and Seattle City Councils recently passed resolutions opposing and restricting oil train transport through the cities. These actions are largely symbolic because, due to interstate commerce laws, cities and even states have little regulatory control over railways. However, the combination of citizen and governmental actions combined with artificially low oil prices is having an effect. Port Westward, the major oil export facility in Oregon has switched back to exporting cleaner ethanol and a facility in Gray's Harbor Washington has decided to stay with ethanol rather than expanding to crude oil exports.
In the volatile world of fossil fuel extraction, export and addiction the next several years will be a defining era for the Thin Green Line of the Pacific Northwest. This is a time for vigilance and action.
Note: This article previously appeared in Issue Magazine, March 2016