Oil Trains – Open Letter To SACOG And Municipal Governments

56d0c177a0822by Red Slider

OIL TRAINS – There is a way to make them 100% safe, but no one talks about it.

“If you think prevention is hard, wait till you have to do response.”

Most official reviews of Oil Train safety and hazard reduction revolve around questions providing adequate response in the event of a catastrophic accident. Even those that contemplate implementations of certain safety devices, tougher tank cars or better right-of-way management do not anticipate risk-free movement of these volatile cargoes through our communities. While some of these responses conjure numbers like ‘100-year accidents’, no one who actually deals with the real potentials for disaster or the myriad of ways they might happen, imagines that means it will take 100 years or more for one of our cities to be blown up, or some environmentally sensitive area be irrecoverably destroyed. Nature doesn’t really care about such risk assessments and, as we have witnessed time and again in this country, “that was a really unusual series of mishaps” inevitably renders such calculations meaningless. None of those approaches really addresses complete prevention. All of them concede, sooner or later, after-the-fact response will be the only option available.

Perhaps there would be nothing to do about that were it not for the fact that there is a method to reduce the actual risk of catastrophic consequence from Oil Train accidents to near zero. Though the rail and oil industries might scream like we were shutting them down, the fact is that if routes and terminal refinery locations are not anywhere near populated or environmentally sensitive areas, the risk of catastrophe disappears. There still risk of accident, that cannot be avoided. What can be avoided are the consequences. Response can be completely contained to very low levels of risk and there need be little or no response directed to saving lives and property other than saving the trains themselves and, perhaps, those that may be operating them.

The industry will, of course yell about the economic feasibility of laying new track or building refineries in places that do not put people, property or environments at risk. But when one considers the building of contemplated pipelines such as Keystone XL, the construction of new N. Dakota Platte refineries or their plans for the upgrading and building new coastal refineries in California in the near future, their protests fall hallow. What they amount to is something most of us already know: The oil industry is quite willing to minimize or ignore public safety in the interests of squeezing more profit out of their adventures. If nothing else, their constant resistance to providing adequate information to municipalities on the real risks and transport data surrounding their intentions.

What remains is the question of why our public officials have been so reluctant to put the matter of demanding Oil Train routes keep well away from our cities and towns on their agenda? Could it be that they have failed to notice or consider such an obvious solution? Could it be that they are deliberately avoiding that discussion to favor the industrial ambitions that prefer it not be discussed or seriously considered? We don’t have an answer to that question. But we do insist that the public interest they are sworn to serve demands they take up the matter in earnest and respond publically to those whose lives, properties and children are being put at risk by the present constraints on public inquiry.

Red Slider is the Editor of  The Sacramento Z Newspaper (www. saczee.com)

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23 Comments

  1. Alan Miller

    the fact is that if routes and terminal refinery locations are not anywhere near populated or environmentally sensitive areas, the risk of catastrophe disappears.

    There simply are no routes from HERE to THERE that don’t go through environmentally sensitive areas. Calling for building such a railroad is nonsensical.  That being said, one can avoid MOST population in California by building a railroad around the towns; I presented such a plan to Benicia, with a map, t that used former rail routes and utility rights-of-way.  This would be a multi-billion-dollar project and take decades to build.  And it doesn’t avoid “environmentally sensitive” areas because that is impossible.

    One must understand the reality that oil companies wish to use railroads because they are *cheap*, in place and *flexible*.  Pipelines would be a much safer and cheaper alternative (not absolutely safe, but much easier to route around populated areas, if not environmentally sensitive ones).  The route I proposed for a new railroad could instead be used by a pipeline at a much lower cost. However, oil companies want to move the oil relatively soon, and they want to be able to move it elsewhere as well and change source or destination. Thus: railroads.

    Population follows refineries, not the other way around, because refineries need workers.  The cost of building a new refinery in a non-populated, non-environmentally sensitive area, as if such a place existed, would be astronomical, if one could actually find a place where the local population would allow a new refinery, which would also take years to built after being sited and permitted.  The whole purpose of these trains is to bring oil to refineries that need new and/or cheaper sources without having to build pipelines.

    But we do insist that the public interest they are sworn to serve demands they take up the matter in earnest and respond publically to those whose lives, properties and children are being put at risk by the present constraints on public inquiry.

    On this we agree, but not that new routes are the answer.  Although there are flammable and toxic chemicals moved today on rails, oil trains by their sheer quantity, volume, and tendency to explode are a very real hazard.  Public officials along potential oil train roues do indeed miss the point while trying to act as if they are doing something (“improving emergency response, training” ha!).  The only real solution short-term solution is not to run the trains.

    That means pipelines ASAP.

    The industry will, of course yell about the economic feasibility of laying new track or building refineries in places that do not put people, property or environments at risk.

    Actually, the industry will not “scream”, because this is not going to happen because no one with any authority is going to demand that, and if they did, it is impossible.  So no need to speculate on the impossible.

    Less dependency on oil?  Yes.  But that’s a long-term fix, and everyone has to get real about that.

    1. Red Slider

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply and the work you have done as well in attempting to find and present ways to mitigate risks.

      There simply are no routes from HERE to THERE that don’t go through environmentally sensitive areas. Calling for building such a railroad is nonsensical.

      The term “environmentally sensitive” is a relative term and, of course, you are correct faulting it in absolute terms. I might have used the phrase “less environmentally sensitive”, but I think the question of how sensitive and what areas would be least impacted and easiest to clean up is best left to the science and engineering communities to figure out. Clearly, running these trains across wetlands, in proximity to important waterways and through other critical ecosystems, as is now proposed, is the worst routing possible.  The footprint left by a serious oil train explosion might be say, 1mile long x 1/2 mile wide. That’s not nice either, but for areas that avoid the most vulnerable environments, they would present a far smaller environmental risk and a much easier cleanup.  That may be the best we can hope for, but it is far better than to simply using existing rail lines that offer no consideration to the environment risk at all. Therefore, I think it prudent to include those conditions in any set of demands and let the science and engineering communities do what they can to figure out what best practice might mean.

      As far as the non-existence of such routes “from HERE to THERE”,  you need to note that what I propose also suggests changing the location of “THERE”  to terminals of new refineries built specially to handle these types of inland shipments.  There is no need to route them to coastal facilities where populations are densest and environments the most sensitive. None, unless one suspects that the real reason for doing so is to position the receiving terminal at places intended to ship both refined and crude products to global markets by ocean transport.  It might be noted that all of the new California refineries (8) and planned substantial upgrades to existing refineries are slated to be on or very near the California coast.

      This, of course, flies in the face of the industry’s rationale for these overland transports as a primary means of insuring domestic supply and independence.  In truth, it is not unrealistic to consider that what the industry really has in mind is the future of global markets to which it can ship its products, including Bakken crude, for refinement in say China or Southeast Asia, wherever labor is cheap and environment laws lax or non-existent and then to ship some of that back to the U.S. as refined product.  This has already been the strategy used in the shipping and preparation of forest products and there is no reason to think it would not happen with oil as well (especially after such commerce falls under the global economic hegemony of the current rash of proposed “trade agreements”.)

      You also use the term “impossible” several times, even venturing to declare the idea of demanding the industry be forced to accept such terms as something that is “not going to happen”.  That argument is pure conjecture on your part, and something that can only be foretold in the case that these and similar proposals do not appear in the public conversation or appear on the tables of serious consideration.  Otherwise, what the public may or may not be able to compel the industry to consider as a reasonable cost of public and planetary safety is precisely the issue to be tested. “Impossible” is not a term that ever applies to such public actions. It is those actions and their strength and effectiveness that determine what is impossible or not.  Not some preordained resignation to what may or may not be “impossible.”

      Finally,  what is possible or impossible in economic terms is equally conjectural, though the evidence actually favors the possibility of rerouting shipments and relocating refineries (or, alternatively, pipelines).  “Billions” sounds like a lot of money. But in terms of industrial investments such as these, is not really as large as it appears.  The Alaskan pipeline ran about 8 Billion over all in 1970’s dollars.  Keystone XL (should it ever be built) is contemplated at about 12 billion, and would probably run 16 to 20 billion by the time of completion.  With figures like that for past and existing projects intended to squeeze more profit for the industry,  the few billions it might cost to build some new or connecting rails (or pipelines) to handle coastal shipments of Bakken is not really so “impossible” as it might appear.  In addition, refineries now being built or planned for the N. Dakota Platte, close to the source, run an average of $300M per unit. A large sum but, again, not much in comparison to the profits anticipated by the industry – they are doing it there, And can certainly do it here if they wish to, or are compelled to in the interest of public safety.

      My whole reason for presenting these proposals is to force the matter onto the arena of discussion where science and public interest can examine it in detail and where the public can respond as it feels necessary.  That cannot happen if the matter is left out of the conversation and out of sight, as it now is, and the matter handled mainly in the back rooms of industrial-government collaboration as a marketing ploy to see how much the stakeholders can get away with.  No conversation of near zero-risk proposals and their costs and benefits is the only thing that will make the matter, as you say,  “impossible”

      1. Red Slider

        Ps. the notion of “population follows refineries” is a quaint leftover from 19th c. industrialization and the opening of previously unsettled lands (e.g,  the gold rush era).  Mushrooming communities do not appear along such rail lines intended for the point to point delivery of a product and have little impact on towns that already exist along the route (which is what we wish to avoid in any case). While it is true new refineries will need to provide housing and amenities for its worker’s, these facilities are relatively stable, small sized, single purpose communities at or near the site of the refinery itself.  They do not really represent “populations” in terms of settlement.  The largest refinery in the nation at this time (Indiana’s BP refinery) employs less than 1,500 workers. Single refineries for handling rail shipments of Bakken crude would be far smaller than that.

        on refinery costs:  The N.Platte figures run from $300-600M on average.  Deep sea platforms, by contrast, run about $800M to $1.5B.

      2. Alan Miller

        I appreciate that you want to get these ideas out there, and your taken this on in a civil way.  That doesn’t make new routes viable or possible or give your ideas any toe-hold.  If refineries are not in coastal areas, then you have to ship gasoline somehow to the populated areas, now much further.  Tanker trucks, rails, pipelines?  Let’s say oil company A wants to get product from North Dakota to the Bay Area.  If refined here, I challenge you to draw a line that would even remotely be buildable as a new rail route.  If refined elsewhere, how do you get the finished product to the Bay Area?  New rail lines of that length are not a few billions.

        1. Red Slider

          Alan, again thanks for your comment (stubborn as you you are 🙂 ) — let me say, I don’t have an answer and you may or may not be correct. I am not an expert on transport logistics and, am I correct in suspecting neither are you?  Which is my central issue and point. Your flat out assertions are really questions for such experts to deal with. As yet, the only experts sitting at the table are those from the industry, and they don’t even raise such possibilities as alternate routing or refinery locations. The experts not at those tables are those from public interest advocacy groups with the knowledge and clout to even the playing field, and put the options before the public in a transparent way.

          Like you, I opt for the day when fossil fuels are left in the ground and we move on to sane alternatives.  But that is not going to happen anytime soon, and not at all if left to the petroleum industry to frame the conversation as they have been doing.

          I don’t know the final solution-set. It might range from letting this stock roll through our towns and just keeping our fingers crossed until the inevitable happens, to routing the damn trains through the deserts east of the Sierras with branch lines to new eastern California refineries with pipes or trucks doing midstream or downstream distribution thoughout the western states. Who knows?  But certainly we’re not going to find out if SACOG, Benecia and others don’t take the matter up in a public way.  It also remains that the conversations, it its present form, leave the matter up to a few (much compromised) public officials, rather than the citizens of the state to decide if they want their towns to risk being blown up.  Do you really know if they wouldn’t prefer and extra dollar or two added to the cost of gas, rather than that prospect?  I don’t, and I’m certainly not willing to speak for them.

          Let me give you a real-time example of why it is so important to have such conversations, even if you don’t think the outcome will favor such “impossible” possibilities.  But for serious examination of a real safety measure (95% safer than what is) Porter Ranch is the consequence of silence on oil/gas rig safety.  Admiral Thad Allan, who was in charge of the Gulf cleanup noted that the only safe method of ocean drilling was to bore relief wells and leave them in place,  before any main well was struck. That way, leaks and disasters like BP could happen, but would not become the catastrophe the Gulf spill became (at a cost of 89 Billion and still rising).  That proposal was never uttered at any of the myriad safety hearings that were held on the matter.  Adm. Allan retired shortly after that (and one can only wonder why).  Not long after that, Sen. Lautenberg wrote a bill to do just that, require preemptive relief wells be drilled on ocean operations.  That bill disappeared shortly after it was introduced in committee.  We (the Z newspaper) also put a petition up calling for such preemptive safety).  The whole matter was effectively muzzled (and we’ll leave it to your imagination to wonder who/how that was done).  Fast forward to Porter Ranch and what do we discover. The same game that turns a small leak into an environmental and public health disaster could have been completely avoided.  That leak also became a major event waiting for relief wells to be struck.  All because of a public conversation that should have happened and didn’t, not even yet.

          So, Allan, perhaps the shoe should be on the other foot? Instead of your discouraging the conversation on rerouting and relocation for reasons of presumed “impossibility”, along with your inexpertly drawn conclusion, you should be joining us in demanding that these possibilities be thoroughly and expertly investigated and made publicly transparent?  They may or may not be possible, or they may reveal very possible alternatives. But without them, I can assure you we will have more than one of our cities blow up long before we decide, after all, it was better to leave our fossil fuels in the ground.  Which is all your inadequate conclusive arguments can actually rely upon. Yes?

        2. Alan Miller

          Well, you are slipping a bit, on the civility, but you are still better than most in the VG Comments . . . and for some reason you responses are longer than your article.  Whether I am an expert or not I will leave up to you . . . and many people seem to believe I am.  I’d say I know more than most, and credentials themselves are overrated.  Get two economists in a room and try to get the same prediction.

          My assertions are not based on absolute impossibilities, as anything can be done if Kennedy declares we are going to The Moon and a good portion of US GDP is set aside for that purpose.  My assertion is based on the fact that no one in authority is showing any signs of doing that.  I presented an absolutely “do”-able routing for a new rail or pipeline that I mapped out from a rail-pipeline transfer point to refineries proposed to receive oil.  The proto-plan got a passing rejection in the EIR along with the hundreds of other comments.  How do you propose your article suggestion, with no plan specifics, picks up any traction whatsoever, except as an editorial piece lost to history?

          “routing the damn trains through the deserts east of the Sierras with branch lines to new eastern California refineries with pipes or trucks doing midstream or downstream distribution thoughout the western states.”  That isn’t a bad idea so far as it goes.  But let’s look at this realistically:  none of the preliminary planning of this has happened.  Even if a groundswell of people decided to start doing this and picked routes and locations tomorrow, it would be well over a decade before the infrastructure was running as needed.  No matter what you proposed, there would be howls of protests by people in the path, and EIRs would be made and challenged, so more delays.

          “citizens of the state to decide if they want their towns to risk being blown up.  Do you really know if they wouldn’t prefer and extra dollar or two added to the cost of gas, rather than that prospect?” — I could say that ten people showed up in Benicia from Davis, and most of those were anti-oil people.  As I had to say before, I’m thanking the anti-oil people, and my criticism is of the 50,000 people in Davis who didn’t show up.  So yeah, I think most people don’t understand the threat, don’t give a crap, or can’t be bothered.  So good luck getting them behind your idea enough for it to gain traction.

          “Allan, perhaps the shoe should be on the other foot? Instead of your discouraging the conversation on rerouting and relocation for reasons of presumed “impossibility”, along with your inexpertly drawn conclusion, you should be joining us in demanding that these possibilities be thoroughly and expertly investigated and made publicly transparent?” — I don’t think you are seeing this objectively:  I am the other foot.  Name one other person on Earth who actually drew up a preliminary routing for a railroad or pipeline to route the oil around population centers with millions of people.  You and your army of backers could have got behind my plan and demanded Benicia give it more than a kind nod of rejection by a bureaucrat checking off the box for proper response in the EIR, and maybe it would have got some traction.

          “I can assure you we will have more than one of our cities blow up long before we decide, after all, it was better to leave our fossil fuels in the ground.”  That’s a bit of a dodge argument, considering there are other ways to keep our cities from being blown up.

          “Which is all your inadequate conclusive arguments can actually rely upon. Yes?” — I’m sorry, what was the question?

          I’m on your side on not running oil trains, Red Slider.  I’m asking you to get real about how to stop this from happening.  How about calling for people to avoid Valero gas, spending in Benicia, and shipping by Union Pacific?  That last one is a bit of stretch as most of us don’t ship by the rail car load, but the first two are doable.  Can you get enough people to feel the threat to get that going with the stroke of your pen?

           

           

           

           

  2. Tia Will

    Alan

    One must understand the reality that oil companies wish to use railroads because they are *cheap*, in place and *flexible*”

    I am in agreement with your points, and would like to stress another point. In desiring a “cheap” solution, the oil companies are demonstrating their belief the human life is “cheap”. True they won’t come out and say it, and would adamantly maintain that I am misconstruing their position. But the fact that the knowingly want to move increased amounts of these highly flammable substances through populated areas for their own profits speaks volumes about what is truly of most importance to them. This placement of profit above all else is, in my opinion the attitude of a truly sick society. In my opinion, health, wellness and safety should be the standards by which we weigh the desirability of a product, technology or energy source. We pay lip service to the value of human life, while acting in accordance with the value of profit above all else.

    1. Alan Miller

      I would probably argue with you because I believe in rail as a safe transport mode generally.  However, multiple explosions changed my mind about this.  If the odds are only one town is destroyed every few decades in a fireball, that’s just not good enough.

  3. Misanthrop

    It seems that on the scale that Red is talking about with multi-billion dollar projects the cost benefit dollars of killing people in an accident amounts to a second tier economic concern for big oil, one that can be evened out through the purchase of insurance. The random pain and suffering that will occur reduced to an input cost.

    The issue here is getting bogged down in environmental issues being lumped together with the human costs. While the environmental issues associated with re-routing pose their own problems I’m sure there are places, especially in small towns along the route, where safety could be enhanced by construction of railroad bypasses.

    1. Alan Miller

      Railroad bypasses are extremely costly and politically difficult.  I am reminded of a project in Texas several years ago where they needed to re-activate an old railroad line.  All the towns wanted a railroad bypass, all the farmers on the outskirts howled in protest that their farms would be destroyed and they fought it.  The politicians allowed the rails to be re-installed, and promised to look into bypasses.  And that’s how it stands, railroad running, no bypasses.

      In the modern world, acquiring that kind of land if very difficult, even when eminent domain is on your side.  This was easier 100 years ago when things were not so built out.  Woodland actually got a railroad bypass in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, when the N-S rail line was routed east of town, along what is now East Street.  The rail line used to run near College Ave.  Now some are trying again to move it east.  Good luck with that.  Fresno has been trying for 70 years to move the Santa Fe line out of town.  Reno actually got a trench after 50 years of trying, only by taking advantage of the SP-UP merger and having federal connections.  Witness the difficulty high-speed rail is having is gaining a linear route on just the first 29 miles of its first route in relatively “friendly” territory, long sections of which are not urbanized, and they have eminent domain on their side.

       

       

      1. Red Slider

        Misanthrope, I’ve already replied to most of Alan’s historical, anecdotal pessimism and resistance to insisting the conversation on preemptive safety be opened and reframed.  The modern world is, as he says, quite different. But it is equally different in it’s determination to resist the risks putting market values ahead of real values engenders.  Prejudging such proposals as I’ve made only insures the narrowest interests of an industry with a demonstrated disinterest in public and environmental health and safety prevails.  Is that what we want to risk by abdicating our rights and reasons to push back as aggressively as possible. Should that not include, at a minimum, a thorough examination of all possibilities, rather than only the ones the industry and their allied public officials wish to us to examine?

         

        1. Alan Miller

          Should that not include, at a minimum, a thorough examination of all possibilities, rather than only the ones the industry and their allied public officials wish to us to examine?

          Who you gonna call?  …………………. #crickets#

  4. Odin

    Great points…but isn’t the end goal to leave fossils in the ground to offset global warming?  Sure I hate the thought of oil trains traveling literally 50 feet from my door (I live on Olive) because of the inherent danger, but I’m equal in my fight against them due to the havoc they are creating in our atmosphere.

    1. Alan Miller

      I’d love to see that, but I don’t believe we can change oil consumption by limiting transport, any more than you can stop drug addiction by patrolling the borders.  That’s a different fight.

      1. Red Slider

        Nah, its all the same fight. A fight over code enforcement and which codes are going to be enforced — those in the public interest or those enforcing shareholder interests.  In the end, nature will have her own standards of code enforcement to apply, and she’s not much interested in market or real values. Just physics, chemistry and biology.  If we don’t get it, she’ll do the job for us — and it won’t be pretty.

         

        1. Alan Miller

          What’s really interesting to me, Red Slider, is you are latching on to fighting with your ally instead of listening and considering.  I put forth a preliminary plan, I twice spoke before Benicia and berated them for their lack of consideration of up-rail specific hazards.  Thank me, and go assemble your army.  Stop arguing with me, and prove to us all your ideas can cause real change for the better.

      1. Frankly

        You are bending over the device that you typed your response on… a device with many parts comprised of petroleum products.

        Hypothetically… if there was no fossil fuel you would not be alive today.  The globl popultion would be much less than half what it is today.   And the US would only be settled from the east coast to the Mississippi.  And I would not be debating this because none of the techology we are using would have been developed.  We would not have gone to the moon.  We would not have achieved most of the scientific advances in medicine.  The list goes on.

        Me thinks that the people pushing this extreme view that we should just stop using fossil fuel are either significantly ignorant of the larger view, or somehow entertain a fantasy that they and their family would somehow live a fantastic life regardless… and this then gets back to that ignorance thing.

        Rail, trucks or pipelines.  Pick one or go away.

         

    1. Red Slider

      I’ll choose those that do the job — and they may not have much to do with the either/or that others would like to limit us to accept.  For that, my guide is my own addendum of Santayana’s classic remark.  To whit:
      “Those who can only remember the past are also doomed to repeat it.”

      There’s a future of solution-sets which are there to be discovered. How arrogant a species that thinks it knows all about what is and what there is to do.  Those are the species that get extincted.

  5. Red Slider

    Alan, I’ll make this my final post. I’ve said my piece.  It seems the only one in our discussion that has been argumentative is you, arguing the “impossibility” of any widening of the discussion to include the matter 0f rerouting/relocating as I suggest (which would include consideration of any proposals you have to make as well).  I think your ideas and tactical considerations are also good and encourage you to keep at it.  My job, my only job, has been to bring this unvoiced part of the conversation to people’s attention.  I’m doing that and have no intention of doing otherwise because someone else has another idea.  If others feel the same as I do and voice their opinions, then perhaps public officials will have to deal with it after all and it won’t be as “impossible” as you think it is.  I don’t presume to have an answer, nor do I presume anyone else does at this time.  The length of my posts is irrelevant, other than giving proper response to the presumptions you make in opposition to getting all of these things on the table — lest others become as resigned as you to some imaginary limits of addressing these issues.  As for “civility”, all of my comments are addressed to your insistence on making conclusive assertions about matters unknown and untested.  None of my remarks are about you or what you are doing or suggesting. Moreover, I encourage all efforts to widen the scope of possible solution-sets, including yours. I only object when arguments appear to needlessly exclude or narrow the ideas of others on the basis of arguable suppositions and conjecture.  That serves no one but the interests of an already well organized, single-minded and very powerful industry.

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