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Originally published March 1, 2014 at 8:00 PM | Page modified March 2, 2014 at 11:30 AM

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Oil trains return to Northwest in big way

Regulators working with the rail industry can make oil trains even safer.

Special to The Seattle Times

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The Pacific Northwest is a long way from the Oil Patch. But the Oil Patch is coming to us by train, ready or not.

The reason is hydraulic fracturing, the technology that injects water, sand and chemicals into rock formations to unlock oil and gas. The biggest fracking play is the Bakken formation in North Dakota, Montana and southern Canada. Relatively high crude prices make these ventures profitable.

These new oil fields tend to be far from pipelines, so railroads are moving the oil to refineries and terminals on the coasts.

The Sightline Institute, a think tank that focuses on environmental issues, calculates that 11 refineries or terminals are operating, under construction or planned in Washington and Oregon that can handle oil by rail. Three are already built.

In the past, most of the oil coming to the Northwest was from Alaska. In the future, trains could be bringing 700,000 barrels or more per day here and traveling through the region’s most populous cities.

Sightline policy director Eric de Place says the key issue is the ’’aggregate effects” of all these projects on environmental and safety risks, not the individual proposals.

Those dangers were most highlighted by the derailment and explosion last July of a runaway oil train in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 42 and incinerated much of the town center.

Some other derailments have followed, even though major railroads have a good safety record in moving oil and other hazardous materials. The Lac-Mégantic disaster happened on a 510-mile.

Still, Todd Paglia, executive director of the environmental group ForestEthics, wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed, ”Neither the federal government nor the state of Washington is remotely prepared for what is already in our state, let alone what may be coming.”

Meanwhile, members of the Washington Legislature want the state Department of Ecology to improve its disaster planning. Democrats propose requiring energy companies to disclose their routes and how much oil they are sending by rail.

But stopping the process is impossible. Because of America’s voracious appetite for fossil fuels, including a desire to export the oil bounty from fracking, that train has left the station.

Once, trains were the way oil traveled. At its peak, in 1943, rail carried 162 million barrels. By the early 1960s, the volume had fallen to 5 million barrels because of the construction of pipelines.

Although not necessarily safer, pipelines were much cheaper.

Fracking has given railroads a new advantage. Unlike the old “elephant fields” of the past, America’s new oil plays are often far from pipelines. Fracked wells tend to deplete quickly, so constant drilling is required to keep output going. This makes it chancy for pipeline companies to make the heavy investment necessary to build new networks.

Rail is economical

Rail, on the other hand, is flexible and can reach many places more economically and quickly. As a result, railroads in the United States and Canada have experienced a boom in transporting oil.

Another potential business is transporting tar-sands oil from Alberta. This heavy crude is difficult to move by pipeline, requiring it to be diluted. At the terminal on the other end, this distillate must be removed. The cost advantage may go to rail.

Class 1 railroads, the largest carriers, are investing heavily in tank cars, and also increasing capacity and safety. The Association of American Railroads, the leading industry trade group, is calling for stringent new car designs and phasing out older models.

Gus Melonas, spokesman for the BNSF, the major railroad carrying Bakken oil to the Northwest, told me that the company is investing in new track, carrying out more inspections and buying 5,000 of the newest, safest tanker cars.

However, one complication for the railroads is that leasing companies and rail customers own most of the 92,000 tank cars used to transport oil in North America.

The BNSF sends between one-and-a-half and 2 oil trains per day to the Puget Sound region. Trains going through downtown Seattle travel at 25-miles-per-hour or less.

Sightline estimates that if all the refineries and terminals are built, all railroads could be operating 11 trains per day through the Northwest.

Melonas said the ”northern tier” of the BNSF, which includes the former Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads, has not seen a fatality as a result of a hazardous materials accident since 1981.

Even so, a December collision in North Dakota involving a 100-car oil train caused a fire and led to a partial evacuation of evacuation of Casselton, a small town west of Fargo.

Proper testing

Last month, federal regulators required shippers to properly test and classify oil coming from Bakken before it is loaded on trains.

This cuts to a critical problem with some fracked oil: It is more explosive than traditional light sweet crude.

Regulators working with the rail industry can make oil trains even safer.

Also, the fracking revolution risks being oversold. It depends on relatively high energy prices and heavy capital investment. It causes heavy environmental damage. Even with fracking, U.S. production last summer was 7.5 million barrels per day, still below the 9.6 million when America reached peak production in 1970.

But as long as Americans keep up their love affair with driving, as long as fossil fuels and highways are subsidized while transit is starved and climate-change causing carbon isn’t taxed, rail will be moving oil.

Rail can also move people. America once enjoyed the finest passenger train system in the world. It could again.

Until these responses to climate change and the externality costs of oil happen, we’re left with the mordant wit of the social critic James Howard Kunstler.

He jokes about environmentalists attending a rally, then getting in their SUVs to drive home.

You may reach Jon Talton at

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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest


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