- Oil train protesters momentarily block a railroad in South Seattle in January.
Last July, the town center of Lac-Megantic in Quebec was practically vaporized, killing 47 people, when a train carrying crude oil extracted from North Dakota's Bakken Shale region derailed. And every day there are one or two trains, carrying the same kind of highly flammable oil in the same unsafe tanker cars like the ones that exploded in Quebec, passing through downtown Seattle.
They go past both sports stadiums and into a tunnel directly under Pike Place Market. If the oil and rail industries get their way, by the time the Seahawks play their opening game at Century Link stadium next September, there could be as many as fifteen explosive oil trains rumbling past the stadium every week, according to estimates from the Sightline Institute.
There's a growing outcry over oil trains—shipment of crude oil by rail nationally has skyrocketed, increasing by more than 42 times from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 carloads last year. But we should be well beyond outcry by now. In December, another oil train derailed and exploded nearby Casselton, North Dakota, prompting an evacuation. "We dodged a bullet by having it out of town, but this is too close for comfort," the town's mayor said, adding that it could have killed dozens of people.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says Bakken Shale oil may be more prone to ignition at lower temperatures than other kinds of crude. In an unprecedented joint statement with its Canadian counterpart in January, the safety agency warned that "major loss of life" could result from an oil train accident. It urged that oil trains be re-routed away from population centers.
If there was ever a population center, it's our downtown and our stadiums. "Until we can be sure that they won't explode, we should hit the pause button," Eric de Place, Policy Director at Sightline, tells me. "I think this is something every person should be worried about: being incinerated."
Next week, City Council member Mike O'Brien will introduce a resolution calling for greater regulation and oversight of oil trains. The city is "deeply concerned about the threat to life, safety and the environment of potential spills and fires from the transport of petroleum by rail," the resolution states. "Instead of waiting for a tragedy locally, let’s be forward thinking about this and get out ahead of it," O'Brien told me by phone today.
But the resolution is only a first step. It doesn't mention global warming—it should go without saying that continuing to exploit fossil fuel reserves will only worsen catastrophic climate change—and it doesn't call for a moratorium on any increased shipments of oil by rail. A coalition of environmental groups, in a utterly sensible December letter (PDF), called on Governor Jay Inslee to declare such a moratorium. A spokesman for the governor says the Department of Ecology is engaged in a review and Inslee won't take a position until they're done.
Let's put this in perspective real quick: On August 6, 2001, President Bush was presented with a briefing entitled, "Bin Laden Determined To Strike United States." His administration mostly ignored it, and we all know what happened the following month. These days, at the mere suggestion of a possible terrorist attack on Seattle, a nexis of government security agencies would go into overdrive. All kinds of powers would be invoked to put a stop to the nefarious attackers.
We need the same kind of urgency, now. Currently, at least two trains carrying Bakken Shale crude oil in DOT-111 tanker cars pass through Seattle. It's those same DOT-111 tanker cars which exploded in Quebec and North Dakota. The NTSB has repeatedly warned that they are unsafe and vulnerable to puncture. Even the head of Canadian Pacific Railroad remarked last month, "The 111 tank cars that you hear so much about, if I was calling the shots would be stopped tomorrow... They've been controversial for over two decades now."
As Adam Gaya, from the environmental group 350.org, points out, "Even if these trains don't explode, their cargo is still deadly—contributing to climate change, ocean acidification and rising sea levels. What these oil trains show us is how desperate the fossil fuel companies are. They are willing to risk sacrificing a major city like Seattle to get at the last reserves of carbon." He says the city council's resolution needs to be stronger.
Requests for comment to Tesoro, one of the oil companies which is looking to ship Bakken crude oil to refineries in Anacortes, were referred to Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) Railroads. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas wouldn't answer specific questions about which trains carrying what oil will pass through Seattle, citing rules against disclosure. He also declined to respond to questions about global warming.
But he says the company is working with the government to "urgently identify additional ways to make shipping crude by rail safer" and "work on speed reduction" of trains in areas where risk is greatest. The rail industry, he says, is seeking an "aggressive timetable for phasing out older DOT-111 tank cars." He also touts the safety of oil trains, calling it "one of the safest ways to move crude oil."
There's no getting around the fact, though, that oil trains subject downtown Seattle to risk of incineration and the environment to further damage. Gaya accuses the industry trying to "transform the Pacific Northwest into a superhighway for shipping all of the dirtiest forms of energy." We've previously covered strong, united opposition by local officials to moving coal by rail through the region.
That's the kind of opposition to oil trains—appropriately loud and alarmist—that we deserve from our representatives. So that we don't get blown up.