Oil on the Tracks—Rail Quietly Picks Up Pipelines' Slack
By Ben Jervey
We’ve talked a lot at DeSmogBlog about oil (and tar sands crude) pipelines. Like the Keystone XL, which TransCanada is currently ramming through Texas, using whatever means necessary (including violence), and Enbridge's Northern Gateway, which was just declared "dead" by one of Canada's top newspapers.
And we’ve talked quite a bit about coal trains, but we haven’t ever delved into the growing trend of shipping oil by train. Trains are a crucial—and growing—part of oil industry infrastructure, so it’s worthwhile to take a step back and get some perspective on this remarkable system. Understanding oil trains will help you understand, for instance, why oil markets are paying little attention to the pipeline debates.
Let’s start with the raw numbers.
Every week, more than 17,000 carloads of oil are shipped in the U.S. and Canada. With roughly 600 to 700 barrels of oil in each carload, that’s between 1.4 and 1.6 million barrels of oil on the U.S. and Canadian rails every day. And these numbers are growing fast. This chart says it all:
To clarify, these numbers represent the total amount of oil and natural gas liquids (NGLs), but with as much digging as I did in the Energy Information Agency stats and Association of American Railroad reports, I couldn’t find any good data to break it down any further.
What’s responsible for the recent surge in oil and NGL on the rails? Mostly the rapid development of the Bakken shale plays under the Obama administration. The expansion of Alberta tar sands extraction is also playing a role.
Pipelines are far cheaper and more efficient for shipping oil, so companies would rather send crude through pipes than load it onto trains. But in areas where pipeline access is limited—like the North Dakota Bakken shale—trains become the next best alternative.
Compare these maps of oil pipelines (from our earlier Pipelines 101 post) and Class I railroad lines:
Obviously, the extension rail system can get tanker cars full of oil into and away from a lot more regions. Not that every region really matters. What matters most is connecting the wellheads (or sources) to the refineries.
So looking at that pipeline map, you might wonder why the rail is necessary for the Bakken boom. Isn't it well served by the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan lines? The answer is: yes and no. Yes, it's served by those pipelines. But not well enough for the industry.
To put it bluntly: those pipelines out of the Bakken are maxed out. They've been operating at capacity for the better part of five years. So much so, that the production of the entire region was limited by pipeline capacity until mid-2010 when rail shipping kicked in. Since then, rail shipments have been steadily climbing, as companies have scrambled to build new higher capacity terminals in order to move more crude.
Whatever your personal feelings about oil, there is also one big technical problem with the flurry of oil train traffic on North Dakota's rails: as the industry trade newsletter from RBN Energy puts it, "the rail lines in North Dakota were not built for this kind of traffic."
In rail parlance, there are main lines and branch lines. The main lines are the superhighways designed for heavy traffic. The branch lines are the back roads. Most of the branch lines in North Dakota were built to support agriculture—to carry fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season and the grain harvest at the end. It is these branch lines that are now being used to transport crude cars. The traffic is heavy and continuous, resulting in much more wear and tear on the lines.
You don't often hear about an oil train spill, but derailments do happen, and even the 99.997 percent hazmat safe delivery rate boasted by the Association of American Railroads probably isn't that reassuring to anyone living near the routes. (That figure is also from 2009, before the boom in crude railcars on tracks that weren't engineered for such use).
So where’s it all going? Today, the vast majority of oil train movement is from the Bakken shale region and Canada to coastal U.S. refineries, particularly on the Gulf Coast. Increasingly, these coastal refinery hubs are building new rail terminals to increase capacity.
Two such major projects were announced this year. The first, in St. James, Louisiana, will serve the entire Louisiana Gulf Coast refinery district. Another, perhaps more surprising, is in Albany, NY, where Global Partners, LLC more than tripled their capacity to offload Bakken crude from trains, with the intention of putting it on barges and shipping it down the Hudson River to East Coast refineries.
That's right. While all the talk is about pipelines, oil trains are quietly chugging into more and more stretches of the country. Wherever there's a refinery and a nearby set of tracks, you can be sure that oil and gas companies are working to link them to the booming shale wells.
This should also serve as a reminder that, above all else, demand is what drives the oil boom. Although the current battles over pipelines like the Keystone XL and Enbridge's Line 9 and the Northern Gateway are certainly important and critical, as long as there is strong demand, oil is always going to keep finding a way to refineries, and the plundering of the shale plays and tar sands will continue to expand dangerously. That's bad news for the global climate, for air quality and drinking water supplies, and for future generations who will suffer from the lack of foresight in our energy planning.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of 431 products that are effective at killing viruses when they are on surfaces. Now, a good year for Lysol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser just got better when the EPA said that two Lysol products are among the products that can kill the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
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For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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