The Gristle

Crude Awakening

CRUDE AWAKENING: Public concern about the shipment of volatile fuels by rail has been countered by industry concerns that reports of such shipments is proprietary and its release could represent a security risk. The oil boom in North Dakota and Montana has created a sharp increase in rail shipments to West Coast refineries and ports. To illustrate both the magnitude and pace of a public policy crisis, there were no crude oil shipments by rail through the state in 2011, but that increased to 17 million barrels in 2013 and is projected to reach 55 million barrels by the end of this year.

Kevin Ranker this week joined fellow Democrat Sen. Christine Rolfes of Kitsap County to send a letter to the heads of two major American railroad companies as well as U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, requesting comprehensive reports of shipments of Bakken crude oil anticipated to be transported through Washington, and to make that information available to first responders and impacted communities.

The letter follows a recent decision by U.S. transportation officials that requires rail companies to disclose shipments of a million gallons or more of crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota. The letter urges the USDOT to lower the threshold from a million gallons, stating that, “shipments on a train of any less than about 35 rail tank cars need not be included, yet several recent derailments and spills and/or explosions of crude oil involved fewer tank cars while causing considerable damage. More oil has been spilled from trains in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined.

“An incident involving release and ignition of Bakken crude from even one rail car could potentially cause the loss of life and severe damage in some of our densely populated communities,” the Orcas Democrat wrote. “It is important that the reports include all Bakken crude shipments, as multiple mixed freight trains that include Bakken crude-laden tank cars also pose significant risks that should also be considered as our communities develop their emergency response capacity and plans.”

Meanwhile, tunneling from the other direction, Sen. Doug Ericksen held a meeting in Spokane last week where industry officials assured listeners that Bakken crude is not more inherently dangerous than other petroleum fuels.

Ericksen, who chairs the state Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, presented a bill last session he says seeks to improve the safety of oil shipments, regardless of their source. Senators Ericksen and Mike Baumgartner (R-Spokane) proposed the bill that calls for more studies of the safety of the transport of hazardous materials through the state. All but a few minutes of Ericksen’s meeting was taken up by officials from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) and an industry representative from North Dakota’s Bakken fields. Yet nearly all who spoke attacked the bill as too friendly to oil and railroad industries.

Ericksen admitted that the meeting was developed while changes were rapidly unfolding in real time at the federal level and in Olympia.

“This meeting was scheduled prior to the federal government announcing their requirements on Burlington Northern, to make available information on products they’re moving through the state and where they’re moving it,” Ericksen explained. “It was scheduled prior to the governor making his announcements on some things he is going to try to get done on oil-by-rail studies between now and October. And what’s very interesting, many of the things the federal government is proposing and what the governor proposed comes right out of the piece of legislation that we heard in Spokane and also the bill I introduced in Olympia last year.

“We couldn’t get that bill passed, but some people are using that bill language as a blueprint for how to move forward on rail safety issues.” 

“The bill was quite a bit weaker than a bill proposed by the Washington Environmental Priorities Coalition, and was often referred to as the industry bill,” Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich remarked.

“The significance of such a hearing being held in Spokane shouldn’t be understated, as these hearings are typically held in Olympia,” he said, “but also because of all the cities in the state of Washington, Spokane and the greater Inland Northwest are significantly more at risk to an increase in oil trains due to the proximity and quantity of rail lines through the community.”

“I wanted to bring in the people who are actually producing and transporting the crude oil through Washington and give them a chance to explain what is actually in the tankers and what they are doing to make sure the tankers are being transported safely,” Ericksen explained.

“Little did many of us in attendance know, though I suppose we should have expected, that Sens. Baumgartner and Ericksen planned an extremely frustrating two hours of stalling and industry speak with very little public testimony and barely any mention of Spokane and the impacts shipping crude oil poses to Spokane and surrounding communities,” Mihailovich commented. He noted that even the time of the meeting—midmorning, midweek—seemed designed to discourage attendance.

“Representatives from the North Dakota Petroleum Council and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) took up roughly 100 of the 120 minutes of the hearing with occasional questioning and comments from other members of the Senate committee. And with those questions, industry rarely answered with specifics and almost always pivoted away to comfortable talking points.

“If this truly was a hearing for Spokane, by Spokane, we most certainly would have seen, and would have been right to expect to see presentations or statements from various response or regulatory agencies in the area who would be responsible if something were to happen in Spokane,” Mihailovich commented. “Nowhere or at no time did we hear from any of those agencies or representatives. Which leads me to conclude that this was never intended to be any more than a highly politicized campaign opportunity for two senators in heated reelection bids.”

Ranker admitted that he and his people purposely stayed away from the meeting, recognizing from the format it was intended more to reinforce industry talking points than gather the testimony that might produce a better bill.

“The main take-home message from the petroleum industry is that Bakken crude is not materially different from other types of crude oil,” Ericksen stressed.

“On this issue the media has termed volatility, I learned that ‘volatility’ is not a word used in the industry. They do not have a volatility measure, and so they use these other measures—flash points and vapor pressures—and from that they conclude Bakken crude is not fundamentally different from other types of crude.”

Data from BNSF that declared 2013 was their safest year to date drew scoffs from the audience; and serves as caution against substituting data from benign cargo hauls in general and applying them to the specific concerns of flammable liquids transported along aging infrastructure. But even more, the assertion also illustrates just what a new and growing and fast-moving target oil-by-rail really is.

“Oil train shipments through Spokane and the state of Washington is a very heated issue,” the Spokane Riverkeper noted. “Their bill last year was an industry bill at best, offering nothing more than more studies and more hearings and little in the way of what residents of this state want which is transparency, safety and some level of assurance. Being they’re both in reelection mode, having this hearing in Spokane, completely loaded with industry jargon to stall and delay public concerns gave them an opportunity to look like the good guys who are tackling an issue that the constituents want them to.”

Even at this early date, Ericksen has raised about $75,000 in campaign funds, a large portion of it from the chemical, energy and transportation lobbyists and financial interests that benefit from his ranking position on an influential senate committee. By contrast, Ericken’s challenger Seth Fleetwood has, at this admittedly early date, raised a little more than $50,000 in a race that is quickly rising to a state-wide interest.

“I want to move products safely,” Ericksen asserted. “There were people at the committee hearing—and I hear from them every day—who want to prevent and block the transport of any oil by rail. To me, I don’t think that is a tenable position. It is going to keep flowing to the refineries, and we have to make sure it is done safely.”

“Amazing how much influence the public had with just 18 minutes,” Mihailovich commented. “Imagine if this really was a public hearing.”

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