Meeting Report .
Energy Transport by Rail thru W. WA
On June 10th, Tuesday evening, I attended a public meeting ( Everett Library Auditorium ) which had the previously announced purpose of discussing the transport of energy, by trains, through the Western Washington rail corridor. Volunteer observers had concluded a census of trains transporting energy North, to locations in Western WA, or on into Canada. As introduced, the meeting was hosted by the "Transition Port Gardner" members and the presentation was by a Mr. Dean Smith.
The meeting began at 7:30 PM, and by my estimate, there were about 90 individuals present. Mr. Smith started by acknowledging the presence of several local politicians or their representatives. The fact that tens of thousands of Snohomish county residents were not in the room or trying to attend, was conveniently ignored. There was no mention of whether or not BNSF had been invited to observe or given time to respond. I was struck by the fact that there was no one in attendance in the 24 and under age bracket.
The following are my takeaways, first with regard to oil transport. The observers counted 16 trains passing, per week. Each train was referred to as a "unit" train, and consisted of 100 tank cars. These trains were reported passing thru this region in the 10 PM to 3 AM time interval. It was stated that all the oil was from the Bakken shale field. It was also stated that the refinery at Anacortes receives one energy train per day, the refinery at Cherry Point also one energy train per day. I must report confusion with regard to numbers shown and voiced. If, as presented, the observations were made for four days, between April 21 to April 27, how could train totals be " per week" ? The discussion on the oil rail tank cars came straight from a "Mother Jones" article. The original DOT-111 tank car was designed in the 1960s. Mr Smith emphasized the unsafe nature of this design and the government / industry failings at updating the tank car fleet. I found it to be typical, but not surprising that the speaker would spend time discussing the increased volatility of Bakken shale oil, using language directly from a Wall Street Journal article yet not mention one word of a Wall street Journal article: "Stopping Keystone Ensures More Railroad Tank-Car Spills" There was no mention of the current administrations ignoring of its own state department report showing detailed analysis. This analysis concluding that the Keystone pipeline would be greatly safer than rail car transport from any field.
Next, are my takeaways with regard to coal transport. The observers reported an "updated" count of 21 trains per week. Each train pulled 130 hopper cars. It was mentioned that all coal was carried into British Columbia, for transport to China. The presenter made an effort to impart that considerable coal ( dust ? ) was being lost during train travel. The power point slide stated : "60,000 - 420,000 lbs. of coal lost per train ( BNSF )". There was no citing of when this data was collected, how and over what length of train route. Such omissions, shallowness of statements offered and presentation inconsistencies were evident throughout the meeting. I would also report that the attendees demonstrated a open hostility to the oil and coal producers, the railroads and efforts to supply energy to a world in demand. More than once reference was made to "CO2 caused catastrophic global warming" - while there was no explanation, citing current climate science, that CO2 was a responsible forcing of climate.
Comments from the audience included a ( 1 ) rather unorganized attempt to state that world peak oil had passed and that ( 2 ) observers had supposedly noticed that each oil tank car varied in weight and somehow, this was perhaps, related to the age ( safety ? ) of individual cars. Also, the presenter made importance of development along the rail right away, and how the tank cars, in particular, poised a serious safety threat. There was no mention of the abdication of local governments in their duties to keep any development at safe margins from rail track routes.
There was no effort made by Mr. Smith to survey the audience as to who arrived by public transport and who drove their own vehicles. The meeting concluded at about 8:25 PM.
I would add the following references, for those wishing further background on the subject of energy transport.
Ironically, it is the absence of a pipeline from North Dakota to the East Coast that has caused the dramatic increase in rail shipments of oil over the past five years. Oil companies prefer pipelines over railroads, which can cost as much as three times per unit shipped. Don Siegel, the chair of the Department of Earth Sciences and Geology at Syracuse University, argues that pipelines not only cost less, but are much safer.
“Since there is no pipeline,” writes Siegel in an email, “we are now moving volatile oil from the Bakken by train. If the oil moved in a pipeline, there would be minimal risk of explosion because leaks don’t explode, they just spill oil on the ground. The other risks with oil spills from pipelines are local and can be cleaned up quickly enough—as they have been in the past. A pipeline leak with modern technology will be detected quickly and stopped, and then the oil is scooped up and the groundwater, if contaminated, cleaned up in a relatively short time frame. The angst over the Keystone pipeline is scientifically unfounded, if certainly provocative.”
Keystone’s friends and foes alike may have underestimated the North American rail system’s ability to handle the thick, gritty oil from western Canada known as tar sands. And while rail was originally a stopgap solution to the lack of a pipeline, oil producers have discovered its advantages. Now, transportation and energy experts on both sides of the border believe that Canadian crude shipments by rail will continue to increase, whether the pipeline is ultimately approved and built or not. Concerns about the safety of rail shipments after a series of recent derailments won’t slow the growth, they say. Nor will the recent State Department report that concluded construction of the $5.4 billion pipeline would not have a major impact on climate change.
Putting the debate over the Keystone XL in this context shows the absurdity of killing the pipeline project. But the Obama administration appears determined to accept environmental arguments that the pipeline could leak (even though the likelihood is less than with rail) and that with the extraction and use of oil from Alberta, Canada's oil sands will increase global warming. On the latter point, the State Department report again is clear that net carbon emissions won't be much different with or without the Keystone XL—because the Canadian tar sands will likely be developed regardless of how the oil is transported and because trains emit more carbon dioxide than pipelines.
Whether the president and other politicians or environmentalists like it or not, oil and gas will be moved from remote areas in the north to refineries in the south, east, and west or to overseas terminals. Opponents may take smug satisfaction in raising the cost of energy and discouraging consumption, but their actions are hypocritical when it comes to saving the environment.