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.
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.
1. Fragrance – Avoid It<p>One of the fastest ways to narrow down your product options is immediately eliminating any product that promotes a fragrance, or parfum. That scent of "fresh breeze" or lemon might initially smell good, but the fragrance does not last. What does last? The concoction of various undisclosed and unregulated chemicals that created that fragrance.</p><p>Many fragrances contain phthalates, which are linked to many health risks including reproductive problems and cancer.</p>
2. With Bleach? Do Without<p>Going scent-free should have narrowed down your options substantially – now, check the front of the remaining packaging. Any that include ammonia or chlorine bleach ought to go, as these substances are irritating and corrosive to your body. While bleach is commonly known as a powerful disinfectant, there are safer alternatives that you can use in your home, such as sodium borate or hydrogen peroxide.</p><p>While you're at it, check if there are any warnings on the label – "flammable," "use in ventilated area," etc. – if the product is hazardous, that's a red flag and should be avoided.</p>
3. Check the Back Label<p>Flip to the back of the remaining contenders and check out that ingredient list. Less is more, here. Opt for a shorter ingredient list with words you recognize and/or can pronounce.</p><p>You may notice many products do not have ingredient lists – while this doesn't necessarily mean they contain toxic ingredients, transparency is key. Feel free to look up a list online, or stick to products that are open about their ingredients.</p>
4. Ingredients to Avoid<p>We already mentioned that cleaners containing fragrance or parfum, and bleach or ammonia should be avoided, but there are other ingredients to look out for as well.</p><ul><li>Quaternary ammonium "quats" – lung irritants that contribute to asthma and other breathing problems. Also linger on surfaces long after they've been cleaned.</li><li>Parabens – Known hormone disruptor; can contribute to ailments such as cancer</li><li>Triclosan – triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals are registered with the EPA as pesticides. Triclosan is a known hormone disruptor and can also impact your immune system.</li><li>Formaldehyde – Causes irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; studies suggest formaldehyde exposure is linked with certain varieties of cancer. Can be found in products or become a byproduct of chemical reactions in the air.</li></ul>
Cleaning Products and Toxics: The Bottom Line<p>Do your research. There are many cleaning products available, but taking these steps will drastically reduce your options and help keep your home toxic-free. Protecting your home from bacteria and viruses is important, but make sure you do so in a way that doesn't introduce other health risks into the home.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.ehn.org/how-to-shop-for-cleaning-products-while-avoiding-toxics-2648130273.html" target="_blank">Environmental Health News</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649054624#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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Twenty-five years ago, a food called Tofurky made its debut on grocery store shelves. Since then, the tofu-based roast has become a beloved part of many vegetarians' holiday feasts.
By Jessica Corbett
A leading environmental advocacy group marked Native American Heritage Month on Wednesday by urging President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Kamala Harris, and the entire incoming administration "to honor Indigenous sovereignty and immediately halt the Keystone XL, Dakota Access, and Line 3 pipelines."
- Climate Crisis: What We Can Learn From Indigenous Traditions ... ›
- 10 Organizations Honoring Native People on Thanksgiving ... ›
- Biden Vows to Ax Keystone XL if Elected - EcoWatch ›
Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
By Jake Johnson
Amid reports that oil industry-friendly former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz remains under consideration to return to his old post in the incoming Biden administration, a diverse coalition of environmental groups is mobilizing for an "all-out push" to keep Moniz away from the White House and demand a cabinet willing to boldly confront the corporations responsible for the climate emergency.