Editor’s note June 3, 2016: An oil train derailment and fire today in the Columbia River Gorge reminds us of the threat that oil-by-rail poses to communities across the Pacific Northwest. Below and here is our most recent report on the various oil-by-rail projects proposed for or operating in the Pacific Northwest. Our thoughts are with the emergency responders on the scene, the residents of Mosier, and communities nearby affected by this event.
Sightline is re-releasing a popular report: The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails. It’s the most comprehensive regional analysis of plans to ship crude oil by train. This update includes important new information showing far greater increases in oil train transport than previously thought. All told, the Northwest could soon be seeing more than one million barrels of crude oil by rail per day—far more than the Keystone XL Pipeline would move.
Moving large quantities of oil by rail would represent a major change for the Northwest’s energy economy, and the plans now in development put the region’s communities at risk.
Why does it matter?
- In British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington, 15 refineries and port terminals are planning, building, or already operating oil-by-rail shipments.
- If all of the projects were built and operated at full capacity, they would require more than 100 loaded mile-long trains per week to traverse the Northwest’s railway system. Many worry about the risk of oil spills along the region’s extensive rail network, particularly in remote locations where emergency response would be challenging.
- Taken together, the oil-by-rail projects planned for the Northwest would be capable of delivering far more fuel than the region is capable of handling at its refineries. Ironically, two of the facilities that would handle oil by rail were originally built to supply renewable fuels, and a third proposal aims to blend crude oil with biofuel from foreign sources.
- The projects are largely designed to transport and handle light shale oil from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota, but the infrastructure could also be used to export heavy Canadian oil. In fact, if all of the oil-by-rail projects were built, they would be capable of moving 1,019,872 barrels per day—nearly as much as the combined capacity of the two controversial pipelines planned in British Columbia, and 23 percent more than the planned Keystone XL pipeline, all of which are designed to ship Canadian crude.
- On the Salish Sea, five of the region’s six refineries already receive oil-by-rail shipments. A trio of projects at the Port of Grays Harbor would move oil along the Washington coast. And on the Columbia River, two facilities in Oregon are already receiving oil-by-rail shipments, while two more in Washington are seeking permits to receive loaded crude oil trains, including plans for the largest such facility anywhere in North America.
The only way to stop them is to play their game.
DO NOT Purchase Fossil Fuels..
LIFE can be so sweet..
Alberta crude burnt in big diesels crossing oceans and bay waterways where toxic runoff plus historic pollutants await superfund status environmental amelioration worldwide. Superfund sites in the great states of the greatest nation in world history, the united states of america, again and again await sufficient funds to clean up the shit we dump in our rivers and bays.
New Urbanism evolves into(metropolitan area) Regionalism whereby
the need for cross-county travel/transport is minimized,
augmented with transit and ped/bicycle infrastructure which
in turn supports local economies. Greece can ultimately support a local economy and would be wise to limit export/import and transport/travel of the longer distances.
It would be great to see the magnitude of investment in sustainable energy reach and surpass that of fossil fuels.
Yes, if all the projects were built, and all used exclusively rail-supplied crude, we could have 1 million bpd moving by rail.
BUT that is highly unlikely. First, the total production of Bakken crude is only about 1 million bpd, and that crude first goes to closer refineries, including the brand new one in Dickison, ND, plus refineries in Montana (200,000 bpd), Utah (180,000 bpd), Minnesota (360,000 bpd). Those will take about 80% of the Bakken crude. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oil_refineries#United_States
Second, Bakken production is likely to decline. Bakken production has a very fast decline rate, with wells producing only 25% of initial production after 18 months. See http://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/Bakken-Decline-Rates-Worrying-For-Drillers.html
The Bakken rig count has declined from 215 rigs before the oil price drop to 75 rigs operating today. And only two of those 75 rigs have a “next job” lined up. See https://www.dmr.nd.gov/oilgas/riglist.asp
Put these facts together, and Bakken production can be expected to decline sharply from the current 1.1 million bpd. Indeed, daily oil production in the Bakken peaked in December of 2014, and has declined about 5% already from that level. See https://www.dmr.nd.gov/oilgas/stats/historicalbakkenoilstats.pdf
However, there are a lot of wells that have been drilled, but not yet fracked. I can’t predict how soon or how fast Bakken production will decline significantly, but until oil prices rise, it is certain to decline.
The point of all of this is that the short-term pressure for oil by rail shipments to and through Washington state is likely to decline.
Which brings me to a different question: Is oil by rail more dangerous than oil by tanker? I don’t think this is an easy question.
Oil by rail certainly has more accidents, but they are measured in thousands of barrels. Oil by sea has fewer, but the can be as large as 1 million barrels (a 120,000 ton tanker serving the Puget Sound refineries carries about 1 million barrels; the supertankers serving other destinations are larger).
The Bakken crude, being so light, volatile, and flammable, poses risks that tankers do not.
Comparing the low risk of a catastrophic accident at sea with the more probably risk of a smaller spill of a more dangerous cargo potentially in an urbanized area is not a simple comparison. Obviously learning to live without petroleum is a good solution, but one that has not caught the enthusiasm of the state population.
I’ve been wordy. If you’ve stayed with me this long, you’re a serious energy policy wonk.
Eric de Place
Absolutely, Jim. Just the sort of perspicacious comments I would expect from you! You’ve raised several issues that I’ll try to respond to individually.
I agree that Bakken production alone is unlikely to fulfill 1 mil bpd capacity in the PNW, but it’s hardly the only source of North American crude available. The larger Williston Basin may or may not (depending on who you believe) contain extensive tight oil deposits just waiting to be tapped, as do several other locations in the Rockies/Intermountain West and California.
But the 800 pound gorilla is, of course, the Canadian oil sands, which are huge. It’s worth noting that the biggest of these proposals, the Tesoro-Savage project at Vancouver, WA, will include steam heating equipment specifically for the purposes of unloading bitumen.
You say that “the short-term pressure for oil by rail shipments to and through Washington state is likely to decline,” but I’m not sure I agree. Given the pipeline constraints on Canadian producers (who could very go 0 for 3 with KXL, Northern Gateway, and TMX) and the eroding “ban” on US exports, I think there’s a very plausible scenario in which crude-by-rail to Washington is the oil industry’s prime opportunity to find a market. One could foresee a combination of Canadian bitumen and US condensate in a fire hose to Asia, and the best route for that would point to the Columbia River, Grays Harbor, or Puget Sound.
As for the relative dangers of rail v tanker, I don’t pretend to have an answer. As you note, tankers can spill catastrophic volumes in one go, while trains can incinerate whole city blocks. I’d prefer neither! But in the meantime, my sense is that these proposals don’t substitute rail for sea, but rather they’re additive. My bet is that we could see more oil trains AND more oil tankers (moving all that railed oil to markets abroad). True, we might see less North Slope oil delivered to Puget Sound refineries, but that North Slope oil could well be diverted to Asia and/or the refineries themselves could begin to act as throughput terminals that move out both refined product and seaborne crude.
I’ve been wordy too. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts about any or all of the above.
We can debate which way of transporting oil is better. The important thing is, citizens are more aware of the dangers around transporting oil.
That fossil fuel shipping is hazardous is one more nail in the coffin of dirty fuel. It’s a highly visible nail. You don’t see below-ground fossil fuel extraction much. And visible smoke from dirty vehicle exhaust is largely a thing of the past. A lot in the life-cycle of fossil fuel is essentially invisible to citizens — out of sight, out of mind.
I think most of us have a visceral reaction to 100-long tank car trains that look more like bombs waiting to happen than wonders of technology. Good that Sightline has increased the visibility on what it means to extract, transport and burn oil.
CNo Dave Loyie
You need to show the Canadian side of the Salish Sea and the Georgia Straight because Crude Oil Spills don’t respect Political Boundaries. You also need to illustrate Liquefied Natural Gas & Propane facilities as well.
Thanks for the work you do.
From the other End of the Line in Northern Alberta in Solidarity!