Year in Review

The Oil Train Industry is Putting Seattle at Risk

Given the scary lack of regulations in place, we're lucky a major oil train disaster didn't turn out to be the story of the year in Seattle in 2015.

By Eric de Place December 24, 2014

To get a handle on 2014, I've asked a couple of people what the biggest story of the year was (the catch being that the story had to have seismic implications for 2015).

Eric de Place, the policy director at Sightline nailed the assignment.  

The first commuters were just beginning to trickle over the Magnolia Bridge. Their headlights were still on at this early hour, although the short summer night was already warming to gray. If any of them heard the derailment happening just below the bridge---the sounds of steel wheel carriages grinding and torqueing, the thud of hundred-ton rail cars hitting tipping onto gravel---none of them knew how close they were to death, and how near Seattle was to disaster. 

The engineers and trainmen who were inching that train up the Interbay railyard must have held their breath, anticipating the worst. But… nothing. The oil cars just lay there. 

The biggest story of the year was the story of something that almost happened—but didn’t. 

Until recently, train derailments were not normally the stuff of front page headlines, but until recently trains didn’t haul millions gallons of combustible shale oil. More than a mile long, comprised of a hundred-plus rail cars, each one with 30,000 gallons of gasoline-like crude sloshing in its belly, these oil “unit trains” appeared on the North American energy scene in 2012 and they have put cities like Seattle directly in their crosshairs. Sometimes likened to a pipeline on wheels, oil trains can also be rolling bombs. 

The biggest story of the year was the story of something that almost happened—but didn’t. 

Only a year earlier, a train just like this one—same tank cars, same oil—derailed in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Late-night bar goers watch in horror as the ruptured tank cars erupted into an inferno that engulfed much of the town, incinerating 47 people with a heat so hellish that it reduced brick buildings to ashes, 

On a typical week, a dozen of these same trains slice through the heart of the city, rolling alongside the sports stadiums, through a century-old tunnel under downtown, past the cruise ship terminal on the north waterfront, and all along Seattle’s northern shoreline. In fact, oil trains may be the biggest risk to the Puget Sound region that you’ve never heard of. 

Folks in North Dakota know about these trains though. When one of these trains struck a derailed grain train on the tracks near the farming hamlet of Casselton, 25 miles outside Fargo, it burst into 300-foot-tall cinematic fireballs while awestruck motorists recorded the conflagration on their phones. (You can find the video clips posted on YouTube.) The accident also spilled 400,000 of gallons of crude. 

Folks in Virginia know about these trains too. Just a few months before the harmless derailment in Seattle yet another oil train had wobbled off the rails, this time in downtown Lynchburg. That the fiery rail cars tumbled into the James River was a roll of the cosmic dice that turned up boxcars. Had the cars fallen to the other side, the town would have almost certainly gone the way of the ill-fated community in Quebec. Even so, stunned office workers watched helplessly while flames reached improbably high into the sky with so much heat that it could be felt behind the relative safety of office tower glass. 

In fact, since the horror at Lac-Megantic, at least five fuel trains have exploded catastrophically at points round North America. 

The Virginia train burned or spilled 50,000 gallons of crude directly into the James River. It was perfect illustration of the way that a reckless industry endangers both lives and the natural environment. Designed to serve the big fracking operations in North Dakota that extract astonishing quantities of light crude from shale formations a mile or more beneath the rangelands, these unconventional oil operations are a factor in America’s shift away from foreign oil, but the operations are problematic in a number of ways. 

The oil trains are plainly dangerous (and dangerously under-regulated), and yet the railroads are currently allowed to run them through urban areas without so much as adequate insurance coverage. As one major insurer told the Wall Street Journal, “There is not currently enough available coverage in the commercial insurance market anywhere in the world to cover the worst-case [train derailment] scenario.” 

The oil-by-rail industry puts Seattle at risk perhaps twice every day and it has big expansion plans for the region, including the world’s biggest oil train depot to be built in the Columbia River.

The oil train that blew up in Quebec? It owners went bankrupt almost overnight, leaving the victims to navigate an unfriendly legal system as they attempt to seek redress from oil companies and railway shippers. 

The oil-by-rail industry puts Seattle at risk perhaps twice every day and it has big expansion plans for the region, including the world’s biggest oil train depot to be built in the Columbia River. But Seattle—and a few other cities like it---may yet prove to be the biggest obstacle that the oil industry has encountered since a motivated band of activists managed to make an otherwise routine bureaucratic approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline an environmental and political litmus test. 

Much as they try to deny it, the oil industry is not above the law. In fact, it needs permission slips from the public to construct the infrastructure it so desperately craves—and nowhere more so than in the Pacific Northwest. Scheming up a pair of titanic pipelines and a dozen rail terminals, most still yet to be built, in the region, Big Oil dreams of turning Cascadia into a globally significant shipping depot that will facilitate vast quantities North American fuel bound for Asia—a sort of Gulf Coast on the Pacific. 

Whether that happens though, depends on whether Seattle and the rest of the Northwest wants to go along. If we recognize what’s really at the stake—the obvious hazards of exploding trains and the more subtle but even more serious risks of global climate disruption from our heedless use of fossil fuels—it’s entirely possible for Seattle to stand as a bulwark against the pipe dreams of Texas and Alberta oil companies.

The big story for 2015 then will be whether Seattle grows comfortable as part of an emerging oil company highway, or whether the city forms part of a Northwest barricade---a thin green line---that stands between big oil companies and the massive environmental threats they bring with them.


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