A seemingly endless oil train of tankers passes by on tracks

Will new DOT regulations make us any safer from volatile Bakken oil trains?

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis last year painted a rosy picture of the North Dakota-Montana Bakken oil field industry: “By making energy transportation more efficient, pipelines, rail hubs and other facilities promote economic growth in the Bakken. Higher profit margins encourage oil and gas producers to drill and develop more wells, resulting in more hiring, spending and tax revenues to support public services. . . . Companies involved in moving energy create jobs, buy goods and services and pay taxes.”

Big profits, increased employment, boosts to local economies and state revenues: What’s not to love? Well, there’s nagging concern about the estimated 11 to 22 million gallons of precious water required to expand the ND fracking wells to 2,000 and, from a larger perspective, there’s recognition not only of water contamination and depletion, but also of air pollution and destruction of habitat. There’s also the prospect of more fiery catastrophes such as the Lac-Megantic derailment, as trains increasingly transport the volatile oil around the US.

CSX Corp., Union Pacific and Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway “sought to prevent states from turning over details” on shipments due to security concerns about the Bakken oil shipments. This past May, however, the US Department of Transportation “ordered railroads . . . to give state officials specifics on oil train routes and volumes so emergency responders can better prepare for accidents.”

State activities in this situation include:

  • Montana:  Gov. Steve Bullock’s office released documents which “show more than a dozen volatile oil trains . . .  have passed through at least 30 of Montana’s 56 counties.” Montana Rail Link has revealed “that its tracks were carrying three oil trains a week along a route from Huntle, Montana, to Sandpoint, Idaho,” going through at least 12 MT counties and Bonner County, ID.
  • North Dakota: North Dakota’s Emergency Response Commission voted this week to release information about the shipments. Over “70 percent of the more than 1 million barrels of oil produced daily from the Bakken region is being moved by rail,” rumbling through more than half of ND’s counties and the cities of Fargo and Bismarck.
  • Ohio: CSX’s oil train route “begins in northern Ohio, crosses the Ohio River near Portsmouth, Ohio, follows the Ohio River until it crosses the Big Sandy River at Kenova and runs through Huntington and Charleston on its way east to an Amoco refinery on the Virginia coast.”
  • Virginia: “Between two and five CSX tanker trains loaded with 1 million gallons or more of flammable crude oil cross Virginia’s midsection weekly, taking a west-to-east route to a Yorktown refinery.” Counties through which the oil rolls are Covington, Alleghany, Rockbridge, Botetourt, Bedford, Campbell, Amherst, Nelson, Albermarle, Flavanna, Goochland, Henrico, New Kent, York and Newport News. This information was released thanks to a public information request.
  • California: The public is now getting a peek behind the curtain of secrecy regarding transport by rail of Bakken oil through Calfornia. Oil trains are rolling through Modoc, Lassen, Plumas, Butte, Yuba, Placer, Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties to San Francisco Bay Area refineries. The route runs alongside the Feather River, “a major tributary of the Sacramento [River] and a key source of drinking water.” A letter from BSNF to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services illustrates emphasis placed on secrecy,  with “Sensitive Security Information” stamped across the top of pages and a “Warning” referencing pertinent sections of the Code of Federal Regulations at the bottom.
  • Don’t mess with . . . :  At the other end of the public disclosure spectrum, the three-member Texas Railroad Commission has a secrecy policy which makes  it “one of the largest state agencies of its kind” to issue a “blanket policy barring staff from doing media interviews.” Instead, contact has to be made by email to one specific official.

While the US DOT’s May 7th order is certainly welcome, it specifies railroads must “notify states about all oil trains carrying 1 million gallons or more of crude oil.” It takes around 35 tanker cars to haul 1 million gallons of oil. Are the chances for a disaster less for trains carrying fewer than 34 tanker cars?  Moreover, the DOT’s May order is limited to “Bakken oil trains to states.”

By the way, railroads not complying with the US Department of Transportation’s order to inform states of  “oil train routes and volumes . . . are subject to a $175,000 fine per day and are prohibited from hauling oil from the Bakken region until they do so.”

States that have “signed confidentiality agreements or otherwise pledged not to release the information [reportedly include] New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Minnesota” as well as Colorado. New York and Wisconsin are said to be “weighing whether restrictions on the information would violate state open-records laws.” It is unclear whether the required railroad reports about Bakken oil transports are to be issued on only an after-the-fact basis or prior to arrivals in the states.

Update: “U.S. safety officials say the dangers posed by a sharp spike in oil shipments by rail in North America extend beyond shipments from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, and include oil from elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.” Both U.S. Senators from Oregon, Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkley (D), have further pointed out to the DOT that “With the exception of the Lac-Megantic accident, every accident involving crude oil, ethanol and other flammable materials since 2006 has resulted in a hazardous materials release of less than 1,000,000 gallons.”

Stay tuned.

Photo of oil train passing though Trempealeau, WI from the Bakken oil fields by Roy Luck, released under a Creative Commons license.