SEATTLE — An alert, issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday said that the crude oil coming out of the Bakken formation of North Dakota poses a “significant risk” because it is more flammable than traditional heavy crude.
The DOT says that Bakken oil can catch fire in temperatures as low as 73 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s one of the reasons it should be classified as a hazardous material when transported by rail, the agency said.
Some Washington refineries are already receiving Bakken Oil by train and a handful of ports in the Northwest are considering building facilities to move the oil from trains onto ships.
BNSF Railway — the company moving the majority of Bakken oil through the Northwest — does not release information about oil train traffic.
Companies that move oil by rail do not pay into the state emergency response fund for oil spills.
The petroleum we pump out of the ground turns into a range of useful things: fuel for all forms of transportation, a key ingredient in plastics, and more. Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic’s senior technology editor, takes a look at the chemistry of crude oil in the two-minute video above, explaining the process of distilling one barrel, gallon by gallon. Animated by Lindsey Testolin, this clip is part of a six-part video series in The User’s Guide to Energyspecial report. If this short overview leaves you wanting to know more, check out Kyle Thetford’s more detailed look at the process.
As hundreds attended a memorial service in Lac-Megantic on Saturday July 27 for the 47 people killed in the train explosion that flattened the center of the 6,000-population town, the horrific accident resonated with a tribe all the way over in the Pacific Northwest.
The Quinault Nation is fighting a plan to transport oil by rail through their territory and across ecologically sensitive areas. Indeed, the July 6 accident in Quebec, in which the brakes failed on a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train and it sped downhill from its overnight resting place to derail and slam into the center of the small town, highlighted a drastic increase in rail transport of oil across the U.S. and Canada.
“It could have easily been Hoquiam,” said Fawn Sharp, President of Quinault Indian Nation, in a statement soon after the crash.
About 234,000 carloads of crude oil were moved around the U.S. in 2012, up from 66,000 carloads in 2011 and 9,500 in 2008, USA Today reported. That makes for a more than 2,000 percent increase over four years, the Quinault Nation pointed out in its July 9 statement.
“It is not a matter of ‘if’ these shipments will cause a major spill; it’s a matter of ‘when’,” said Sharp.
The Quinault are battling plans by the Westway Terminal Company out of Louisiana and Texas to build an oil shipping terminal in Grays Harbor with the capacity to store 800,000 barrels of crude. The company expects to transport 10 million barrels of crude through the ecologically sensitive harbor every year, the Quinault said in their statement.
In addition two other facilities to receive crude oil via rail shipments also being proposed in the Grays Harbor area, which includes marine shipping, would create “major environmental risks” to the community and the Quinault.
“The massive train, oil barge and ship traffic this project will bring to Grays Harbor is a tragedy waiting to happen,” Sharp said. “There will be spills and they will harm salmon, shellfish, and aquatic life, trample our treaty rights and cultural historic sites, and tie up traffic for extensive distances.”
Moreover the expansion of the Westway Terminals’ Port of Grays Harbor facility violates treaty rights as well as the tribe’s standards of “good stewardship and common sense,” Sharp said. “The risk is not worth a few more, unsustainable jobs. Far too much is at stake, and there is simply no way oil train proponents can pass the straight face test and tell us that their proposal is safe. Lives are at stake. Fish and wildlife resources. Water quality and much, much more. These are the same type of rail cars that will come pouring through our area, and unquestionably threaten the lives and safety of our people and resources.”
Back in Quebec, the tragedy hit home anew. Nearly 1,000 people crowded into Ste-Agnes Church for the morning Mass presided over by Archbishop Luc Cyr of Sherbrooke, the Associated Press reported. Also attending were Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche, as well as the Crown representative, Governor-General David Johnston. Maine Governor Paul LePage also attended.
“This has been an emotional day followed by a very emotional period,” Harper said outside the church, according to AP. “It is very difficult to absorb all this when you see all of these families who have been affected.”
Several lawsuits have been filed as a result of the explosion, and both the police and federal transportation safety officials conduct investigations, AP reported.
Oil refiner Tesoro and terminal operator Savage are trying to secure permits to build the region’s biggest crude oil shipping terminal at the Port of Vancouver, along the Washington state side of the Columbia River.
KPLU reports that the proposed terminal would receive crude by rail from oil fields in North Dakota and transfer it onto oceangoing tankers for delivery to refineries along the West Coast. And that’s just one of many plans to boost shipments of oil through the region to coastal ports. Environmentalists are not pleased, fearing oil spills among other problems.
The Port of Vancouver got an earful Thursday from backers and opponents of a proposed crude-oil transfer terminal who packed the Board of Commissioners’ hearing room to trumpet their arguments.
Executives with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, who want to build the terminal to handle as much as 380,000 barrels of oil per day, told commissioners the project capitalizes on rising U.S. oil production, boosts the local economy and will operate in ways that minimize harm to the environment.
“A lot of family-wage jobs will be created,” said Kent Avery, a senior vice president for Savage.
Critics told commissioners the project, which would haul oil by rail and move it over water, conflicts with the port’s own sustainability goals, increases the risk of oil spills in the Columbia River and further fuels global warming.
“This is a really big gamble,” said Jim Eversaul, a Vancouver resident and retired U.S. Coast Guard chief engineer.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) will have the final decision on the proposal. From the Columbian again:
Port managers are negotiating the terms of a lease agreement with Tesoro and Savage. Commissioners may decide a proposed lease arrangement on July 23.
Such a decision won’t end the matter, though. The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council will scrutinize the proposed crude oil facility and make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.
The council’s review could take up to a year or more. The companies hope to launch an oil terminal at the port in 2014.
The Seattle-based nonprofit Sightline reports that 11 port terminals and refineries in Washington and Oregon “are planning, building, or already operating oil-by-rail shipments” and “if all of the projects were built and operated at full capacity, they would put an estimated 20 mile-long trains per day on the Northwest’s railway system.”