Attention Unions: Sierra Club Targets Railroads

Dear labor union railroaders: the Sierra Club wants you fired. 

Wayde Schafer, the organizing representative of the Dacotah chapter of the Sierra Club, has this piece for CNN Opinion that starts by invoking the deadly rail derailment in Quebec:

Oil that was drilled in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields is loaded onto rail cars and passes through a small Canadian community and shatters their world in an instant.

Railroad engineers did not have transporting oil in mind when they laid out the routes. They did not avoid population centers, rivers, or environmentally sensitive areas. They were only concerned with getting from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner possible. In fact, trains carrying oil tanker cars run just two blocks from my office, right through the heart of Bismarck, North Dakota.

(Actually Wade- railroads weren’t built to avoid population centers…oftentimes the population centers formed around the railroad itself.  Case in point- Montana’s Hi Line.)

It’s too early to draw conclusions from the ongoing catastrophe in Lac-Megantic, but there’s one simple lesson that we should not ignore. Bakken shale, tar sands, and other extreme fossil fuels threaten our towns and our communities.

(Not mentioned as an alternative to shipping more oil by rail in Wayde’s piece, of course: the Keystone pipeline.)

By the way- here’s the latest on the Quebec disaster from Friday’s Morning Energy by Politico:

– The confirmed number of dead has reached 24, and police have identified the first victim, a 93-year-old woman. Around 26 people are still missing, and police believe them to be dead. CBC News:

– Moody’s says it expects the disaster to make shipping by rail more expensive by leading to more government scrutiny and regulations. Canadian Press:

Canada’s Prime Minister says the oil will flow to our communities one way or another- whether via pipeline or rail, and whether from the Middle East or North America.  The Bismarck Tribune has more:

Since 2009, the number of train cars carrying crude oil hauled by major railroads has jumped nearly 20-fold, to an estimated 200,000 last year.

Much of that comes from the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and Montana, including the oil that spilled Saturday in Quebec. Because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are increasingly using railroads to transport oil to refineries.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has been pushing the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, has called railroad transit “far more environmentally challenging” than pipelines. Harper says the 1,700-mile Keystone project, which would carry oil derived from tar sands in western Canada to refineries in Texas, is crucial to his country’s economic well-being.

Senator John Hoeven (R-ND), echoes the Prime Minister in this piece from The Jamestown Sun:

About 675,000 barrels of Bakken crude leaves North Dakota rail facilities daily, according to the most recent figures from Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

That averages to about 1,000 railcars per day, Kringstad said, and about 15 times the amount of oil shipped by rail from North Dakota three years earlier.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement through his spokesman Monday “the incident underscores the need for vital pipeline infrastructure, like the Keystone XL, to move more product to market in both the U.S. and Canada.”

Politico’s Morning Energy earlier this week covered the question before the White House, noting that WH Press Secretary Jay Carney was guilty of the “dodge of the day:”

DODGE OF THE DAY: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney didn’t address the administration’s thoughts on the safety of transporting oil by rail when asked yesterday about the disaster. Carney instead said the administration has been in contact with Canadian officials and offered firefighting support, but that the Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t have jurisdiction over the incident.

At the end of the day, Reuters described how the tragic derailment accident may have happened

Normally, before retiring for the night, the train operator sets the hand brakes and leaves one locomotive running to power the air brakes that help hold the train in place on the gently sloping track. The next morning, the operator or a relief engineer starts up the train and continues on their way.

Last weekend, the system failed. The locomotive caught fire, so firefighters shut off the engine to stop the flames from spreading. That slowly disengaged the air brakes, and the driverless train carrying 72 cars of crude oil rolled downhill into the scenic lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, derailing, exploding and leveling the town center. has more on the economics driving increased rail transport from the Bakken:

The train, which belongs to Montreal Maine & Atlantic (MMA), reportedly was shipping the crude oil from the Bakken Field (in Williston Basin) in North Dakota towards Maine. Some of you may be wondering how this trade could make any economic sense considering shipping by rail adds about $20 a barrel, on average, to the cost of oil. Here is how the math works:

The lack of sufficient pipeline takeaway capacity was a major factor behind Bakken oil priced at a discount of $28 a barrel to NYMEX WTI in February 2012. Mind you that there’s also an additional WTI-to-Brent discount of up to $25/bbl at some point during 2012, owing largely again to the pipeline constraint leading to the oil glut at Cushing, OK, artificially depressing the price of NYMEX WTI.

The light and sweet Bakken crude is actually more suited for the refineries on the U.S. East Coast since plants there are mostly older and require higher grades of crude oil such as Bakken’s as feedstock, whereas the refineries on the Gulf Coast are geared more towards handling cheaper and heavier crude grades.

Related, Texas surpasses several OPEC countries in oil production, per

In March, Texas oil production reached its highest level since 1984. That month, the Lone Star State pumped more than 74 million barrels of crude from the ground, which means if Texas were a country, it would be one of the 15 largest oil producers in the world.

Meanwhile, China hopes to tap into US shale technology:

China expressed a desire to increase its investment in U.S. shale gas during talks between the two countries on Wednesday, an American official said.

Output from shale fields in the United States and Canada has jumped in recent years with the increased use of drilling methods such as hydraulic fracturing. Companies in China, which has the largest shale reserves in the world, are keen to get the know-how for drilling in such unconventional fields.

As the world’s largest energy consumer, China is also scouting for oil and gas supplies abroad to feed its energy appetite.

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