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Oil Trains To Become Pipelines On Wheels?

The Pacific Northwest is being hit with another fossil fuel threat: oil trains. Oregon and Washington have been faced with megaloads of tar sands equipment, liquefied natural gas pipelines and terminals, coal trains and now what conservationists are calling oil pipelines on wheels. Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, says the trains are already under way here in Oregon carrying fracked crude oil from the Bakken oil field of North Dakota. A Sightline Institute report says that there’s nothing to stop the trains from being used to ship Canadian tar sands oil through the Northwest as well as the fracked oil.

Serres says that one proposal to ship oil on trains to the Port of Vancouver involves 380,000 barrels of oil a day. “The scale of it is unexpected,” he says. The proposal calls for four full mile-and-a-half oil trains a day, but Serres says, according to his math, that much oil would need more trains than that. 

According to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek, the typical amount of oil a train carries is 70,000 barrels, and the amount of U.S. crude oil being moved by railroads has increased 166 percent in the past 12 months. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Sightline report says there are 10 other refineries and port terminals that are planning, building or already operating oil-by-rail shipments. In Oregon, Global Partners owns a former ethanol plant in Clatskanie’s Port Westward that is bringing in more than 28,000 barrels of oil a day on trains and putting the oil on barges that go down the Columbia River. Serres says if there is an oil spill — the train tracks run along the river through the Columbia Gorge — a derailment of Bakken oil would be disastrous, and the heavy Canadian tar sands crude would be impossible to clean up. 

The oil trains would run along the same tracks as the coal trains, Serres says. Studies show that the coal dust that comes off the trains affects the ballast rocks that the tracks are on, increasing the chances of derailments. This would mean that in addition to coal dust and increased diesel particulates from all the train traffic, communities along the way would face possible oil spills. Serres says, “The companies are saying they have this great record, moving oil by rail, but spills are more likely to happen moving these volumes by rail.” 

The International Port of Coos Bay ended its recent effort to export coal by rail earlier this year after public outcry and two of the major players in the deal dropped out.

U.S. law says that unrefined crude oil cannot be exported, but that does not apply to Canadian tar sands oil, opening the door for ports that don’t have oil-refining capabilities to export oil. The oil industry has long lobbied to end the ban on U.S. crude oil export. 

Serres says that the bigger picture shows “the Columbia River as a superhighway for fossil fuel, as these ideas just keep getting bigger and crazier.” He says there are opportunities for the public to comment on the Port of Vancouver proposal on July 9 and again on July 23. For more information go to ColumbiaRiverkeeper.org.