skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Diane Bailey’s Blog

When the Oil and Rail Industries Work Together to Put Profits Over Public Safety

Diane Bailey

Posted April 4, 2014

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

One thing about these industries - when the oil and rail barons get together, tidy profits are sure to be made.  But at whose expense?  And if the latest mile long oil by rail collaboration has nothing to hide, why won’t they tell the public what is in the rail tanker cars, where they’re going and how often they’ll be passing through town?

It turns out that the oil and rail industries won’t even share that information with the federal government, despite having promised it months ago.   The main regulator of rail safety, Cynthia Quarterman, chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) complained recently that the U.S. oil industry is not sharing important data on oil-by-rail shipments that may help prevent accidents.  A U.S. Senator noted that "This lack of cooperation from the energy industry confirms all of our worst fears of their failure to prioritize safety".

Crude oil by rail shipments have grown forty fold over the last five years, and the last year has seen more spills and accidents than the previous thirty combined (see this interactive map from McClatchy news service).  The decimated downtown of Lac Megantic, Quebec, the site of a terrible oil train derailment last summer that took 47 lives, stands as a stark reminder of the safety risks that communities along oil train routes face.  (images of Lac Megantic below are borrowed from the internet with gratitude)

 Thumbnail image for Lag Megantec aftermath of derailment july 2013.jpglac megantic aftermath.jpg

California officials have also expressed concern over being kept in the dark about crude oil rail activity in densely populated areas.  Last week, leaders in Berkeley and Richmond grew so concerned over crude oil trains running through their cities that resolutions passed with unanimous support to oppose crude by rail.

Unfortunately, much of the legal authority to regulate rail safety lies with the federal government, which has been playing a game of catch up in the midst of what they have termed the Bakken Blitz of exponential growth in crude oil rail transport.  Federal action has been slow, prone to weakening in response to industry protest, and woefully inadequate.

Given the serious public safety risks of mile long crude oil trains suddenly entering Richmond, putting that already over-burdened community in even greater peril, we joined three other groups in a lawsuit to stop the Kinder Morgan crude oil terminal last week.  Not only did the regional air quality management district quietly hand Kinder Morgan a permit for the terminal without any public process, they didn’t even notify elected officials in Richmond of the mile long crude trains.

The Kinder Morgan crude oil terminal in Richmond may have a twin in the McClellan railyard outside of Sacramento, which suddenly began taking crude oil trains on the sly without any public notification or environmental review.  In this case the facility didn’t have a permit for the crude oil rail operation but was quickly granted one from the regional air district without any fine and dodging public notice.

petrochem.pngOne recent editorial in Sacramento cautioned of the “devastation that can happen when corners are cut on safety and local officials are kept in the dark,” recalling the deadly natural gas  pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010, that took 8 lives and leveled almost 40 homes due to negligence from that utility. Accidents happen, but with much greater volumes of unusually volatile crude oil moving by rail, lax safety standards, and so many communities situated around rail lines, we are virtually guaranteeing serious public safety hazards. 

At this point it seems like the industry has crossed a line taking our collective public safety for granted as an expendable commodity of their trade.  It’s past time to join the cities that have already acted: Seattle, Spokane, Albany, Berkeley, Richmond and counting: No more crude oil by rail until the oil and rail industries get their act together and figure out how to do it safely.

These two brothers, Aji and Adonis, put it best when they recently performed the song “Exploding Trains” outside Seattle’s City Hall, before that city passed its resolution opposing crude oil trains. When older brother Aji learned about the exploding trains, he decided to write the song to bring attention to the dangers of oil trains and burning fossil fuels, exhibiting wisdom well beyond his years and some real musical talent.

Share | | |


Al WisterApr 4 2014 10:28 PM

Diane, as usual your article is totally biased against crude oil without making any mention of ethanol.

My main problem I have with you and the NRDC on this topic is that there were ZERO complaints by the NRDC to Kinder Morgan when the ethanol racks were built near the Chevron Richmond refinery (and when the trains first rolled in). Have you already forgotten how flammable ethanol is?? If you and the NRDC think ethanol is less flammable or "explosive" than Bakken crude then you need to go to science class. I will repeat myself again: the BNSF railroad shipped the ethanol to the Kinder Morgan facility UNTIL the BNSF railroad lost the delivery contract to another railroad (Union Pacific). The ethanol is now off loaded at another facility and trucked to the Chevron refinery and probably others as well. So then Kinder Morgan had an asset not being used (which is a money loser). Like any business they found a solution to the problem: change the racks over to unload crude oil. They received the permits and did so. This is not the first time crude oil has been delivered to the Chevron refinery either. I've already mentioned this factoid in the past but people like to ignore the truth.

The anxiety over Bakken crude is media driven especially when the media continues to show pictures of the Quebec tragedy to slant your and the NRDC's point of view. It's completely unnecessary in light of the goes on daily: the safe passage of Bakken crude oil trains to the East Coast, to the gulf Coast and to Washington State. I doubt you and the readers have any idea how many trains operate out of the Bakken region on a daily basis. And you wouldn't since the public knows next to nothing about railroads.

Additionally, you should know that due to business contracts signed between shippers and the railroads, truckers, maritime corporations, ect. contract information is proprietary. The transportation system doesn't want that info public, period. What if terrorists got the info and used it against us???

Here's my advice: STOP all the irrational "what if's" and get real. I believe in some of what the NRDC stands for but the hysteria over the movement of crude oil by rail is WAY over the top. Crude oil by rail is here to stay if even if some of the proposed crude oil by rail terminals are not built.

Want to keep tar sands and Bakken oil by rail out? Fine. But suggest other types of oil instead of fighting this every step of the way. As it is neither you or me know what type of oil is being brought in from oversea's by ship to refineries with water access (like Valero in Benicia). Seriously, doesn't the public have the right to know that too?

JakeApr 5 2014 09:37 AM

Funny how the Sierra Club is suddenly so concerned about oil by rail. Nevermind it is the fault of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that this amount of oil even needs to be shipped by rail.

By making pipelines difficult to build, this is exactly what you wanted to happen. Now people are dying because of your actions, and you're acting like you're upset about it.

The hypocrisy is disgusting.

Josh MogermanApr 5 2014 10:11 AM


Sorry, but that is just plain wrong. Oil transport out of the Bakken, where two major pipeline projects were cancelled recently due to lack of producer interest, has been one of the major oil by rail drivers. The pipeline fights have had minimal impacts there because producers have embraced rail. Heavier oil, like tar sands, are much harder to move by rail and accordingly are much less of the issue here.

To be clear, your point implies a false choice. It is not pipelines OR rail. The industry wants more of BOTH and the public will be forced to deal with the risk of that expanded oil infrastructure until we move more aggressively to cut our crippling reliance on oil.

Al WisterApr 5 2014 03:03 PM


Tar sands crude oil from Alberta is actually EASIER to move by rail, not more difficult. It requires much less diluent when using tank cars that have internal heating coils. Tar sands crude going via pipeline requires diluent to get it to flow through the pipeline properly. Bakken oil is actually a better fit for pipelines BUT there are no pipelines that carry it where it needs to go: to both the east and west coasts. They don't want Bakken oil down at the Gulf Coast refineries because they are already awash in "sweet" Eagle Ford crude oil from Texas (delivered by pipelines). That is the real driving force behind rail shipments.

JakeApr 6 2014 08:10 AM


Yes, there are cases where rail is preferred. However, one reason producers prefer it is because they do not want to commit to a long distance pipeline that could get held up by environmentalists. The other reason is more flexibility.

It is a fact that there is a lot more oil on the rails due to environmentalists.

Diane BaileyApr 6 2014 11:46 AM

The fact is that pipelines spill (Mayflower, Arkansas; Marshall, Michigan, etc.) and oil trains have accidents. We should focus our efforts on reducing our dependence on dirty fossil fuels. In the meantime, wouldn't you agree with the NTSB that dangerous oil trains should avoid urban areas? And why aren't the oil and rail industries working together to implement every best practice on rail safety right away before putting any more communities at further risk? The voluntary effort so far has not addressed the real threats to public safety from mile long crude oil trains.

Al WisterApr 6 2014 01:42 PM

Diane, oil trains can't avoid going through all urban areas, it's that simple. Cities and towns grew up around rail lines, not the other way around. Railroads have specific crew change locations, specific locations to refuel locomotives, specific interchange points with other railroads, ect. Rerouting, when possible, could add significant costs because it's just not a simple process to change an oil trains routing to avoid urban area's Chicago is one city where rerouting will just not be possible. In order to understand that statement you have to have at least some knowledge of the railroad industry first and transportation logistics first.

And don't suggest all oil trains are dangerous because it's not true. You already know there are many more products moving by rail and highway that are more dangerous than crude oil. A unit train of ethanol is just as dangerous.

JakeApr 7 2014 06:33 AM

Diane, your lack of sincerity is fascinating. To add to your point, if the Sierra Club cares about human safety, why don't they recommend pipelines instead of trains? Besides saving lives, you'd reduce carbon emissions at the same time.

Josh MogermanApr 7 2014 01:33 PM


That is simply malarky. The two pipelines recently canceled in the Bakken were canceled due to lack of interest. There was no environmentalist pushback.

JakeApr 7 2014 05:00 PM


This is a big country. There are other places besides ND/MT. And as I said, part of the reason for lack of interest is the risk that such a project would be significantly delayed by environmental challenges. So even in the Bakken, it is not malarkey at all.

Even short pipelines are often challenged and delayed months or years by environmental activists. With a >1,000mi pipeline, the risks are even higher, and it is logical that producers and refiners simply can't afford to take that kind of risk.

Al WisterApr 7 2014 09:13 PM

What needs to be remembered is rail has proven to be flexible. If a refinery orders a unit train of oil then decides to cancel or delay delivery then the crude oil can be resold in transit and it's delivery routing changed. In some cases it keeps the refinery from having to store the oil on site (or off site) prior to refining it.

As an FYI the test that SHOULD be done on Bakken crude oil (or any other oil above API gravity rating 28) prior to shipment is called a "sealed vapor pressure test". Right now it's not a common test (but it should be and probably will be within the next 6 months). It's done primarily to test what is called "gas leakage" in crude oil while in containment. Oil producers are reluctant to eat the test costs but I don't see any other way to diminish public fears.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In