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Seattle Council to Governor: Protect this City (And the Climate) from Oil Trains

Beyond the dangers of derailment and explosions, Seattleites are worried about oil-by-rail shipping's effect on the climate. Here's what they did about it.

Seattlites protest oil by rail. Photo by Alex Garland Photography.

Opponents of oil-by-rail shipping protest in Seattle on Feb. 12. Photo by Alex Garland Photography.

Last month a small but vocal group gathered on the steps of Seattle's city hall to demand greater restrictions on the controversial transportation of oil by railway tanker through the Northwest. This was the latest action in the larger movement of opposition to trains carrying fossil fuels through Washington.

After a lively demonstration, more than 30 people talked to the city council about a resolution intended to address growing concern about oil-by-rail shipping—especially regarding climate change and safety hazards. They called on Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who helped draft the document, to ask Governor Jay Inslee to freeze all pending proposals to expand facilities that refine and ship oil in the state.

Those who participated had cause to celebrate on Monday, as the city of Seattle passed a revised version of the resolution that both links oil-by-rail shipping to climate concerns and calls for the moratorium as requested.

"Now Governor Inslee must decide whether he wants to be remembered for climate leadership or paving the way for a Northwest fossil fuel superhighway," said Adam Gaya of Seattle 350.

The resolution also calls for strengthening emergency response systems in the event of a derailment, and asks for full disclosure of the amount, type, and frequency of oil shipped by railway through the state.

Refineries in Washington state are currently permitted to bring in an average of 183,000 barrels of oil per day over the course of a year, according to Matt Krogh at the environmental research institute Forest Ethics. However, oil and rail companies are not required to disclose the amounts they ship, or how often oil trains run.

According to O’Brien, the resolution is only the beginning of a longer process that could result in stronger regulation of rail and oil companies.

"The challenge around this issue is that we don't have a lot of legal authority over the railroads," he said.

That’s because railroad commerce falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government, so the city of Seattle has little regulatory power: The mayor has no control over the trains that travel through the city’s dense downtown area carrying volatile crude oil.

In the end, it’s up to the state and federal government to write laws addressing the safety and environmental risks connected to oil-by-rail shipping.

Safety and environment

While Resolution 31504 won't have an immediate effect on oil or railway companies, it represents growing skepticism about oil-by-rail among grassroots organizers and city officials throughout the state.

That skepticism is partly due to oil-by-rail’s questionable safety record. On one hand, rail transport does result in fewer spills than pipeline transport.

A report published in 2013 by the Association of American Railroads, an industry group, shows that the number of gallons spilled from rail car shipping is about one-third of the amount spilled from pipelines.

But when oil-by-rail incidents do occur, they are often catastrophic.

In July of 2013, tanker cars transporting crude oil from the Bakken shale fields derailed in the small town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and leveling several blocks. This was followed by a derailment and sweeping wetland fire in Aliceville, Ala., on Nov. 8. Next came similar crises in North Dakota on Dec. 31 and in New Brunswick on Jan. 7 of this year, both of which required evacuations of nearby homes. The most recent derailment and spill occurred on Jan. 20 near the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, causing extensive ecological damage.

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Beyond the destructive potential of derailment, many Seattle residents are concerned about the impact oil-by-rail shipping could have on climate change. The oil transported by rail will be refined in the U.S. and then sold both domestically and abroad, adding significantly to global carbon emissions.

While it is easy to argue that the oil will be burned regardless of which method is used for its transport, local efforts to halt oil-by-rail may play a role in the larger push to shift the U.S. away from reliance on fossil fuels.

“This is our XL pipeline,” said Lynne Fitz-Hugh of 350 Seattle.

Out of the pipeline, into the railcar

In recent years, the fossil fuel industry has relied increasingly on railroads to move oil from the Northern Plains and Midwest to refineries along the West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

After two decades in which the domestic production of oil generally declined, in 2008 the trend reversed. Between 2008 and 2012, domestic production increased 29 percent, according to TheEnergyCollective.com.

Much of that new production came from the Bakken formation on the border of North Dakota and Montana, where oil companies are using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—typically used to extract natural gas—to extract vast quantities of valuable crude oil.

No infrastructure existed that was capable of moving the immense new quantities of oil to refineries and shipping depots. When the amount of oil produced outgrew the limited capacity of the existing pipeline system, Keystone XL and other pipeline projects were proposed. But while pipeline projects were pending, the industry turned to a mode that was until recently under the radar: shipping by railway tanker.

This explains why the amount of crude shipped by rail in the United States increased so sharply in recent years, jumping from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 234,000 in 2012. It then nearly doubled in a single year, rising to 400,000 carloads in 2013.

In Washington state, there are five pending proposals to increase the capacity of existing refineries, and four to build new shipping terminals. A report from Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank, says that if all the pending projects are approved, they would bring the number of barrels of oil shipped through the state to 785,000 per day.

Krogh of Forest Ethics agreed with Sightline's numbers, calling them "the best we have … based on the permit applications for all ten proposals in Washington and Oregon."

Scott L. Montgomery, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of International Studies, estimated that roughly 70 percent of that crude would be turned into gasoline and diesel. The gasoline and diesel would be burned for fuel domestically and abroad, releasing about 78 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year.

Public response

Seattle's resolution is part of increasing efforts by grassroots groups and local governments to halt the flow of oil by rail. In December, residents spoke out against a proposal by the Tesoro Corporation to build a new terminal at the Port of Vancouver, near the Washington-Oregon border.

In fact, so many people spoke out that the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council—the state agency responsible for reviewing the proposal—extended the public comment period for a full month. By the time the comment forum closed, 31,000 comments had been submitted.

Related proposals have cropped up in every corner of the state. In the northwest, the city of Bellingham passed a resolution calling on the federal government to impose tougher restrictions on oil tank cars bound for the nearby Cherry Point terminal.

In early February, the city of Spokane passed a similar resolution calling for tougher safety regulations and asking the state to conduct studies on safety, economic, and environmental impacts.

In Seattle, public engagement had a direct effect on legislation. Both the Sightline Institute report and the public’s efforts in February impacted the language of the resolution, O’Brien said in an interview with YES!

“The Sightline research has really helped me quantify the seriousness, as best I can, of what’s going on,” he said. “The testimony talked about a couple issues that we hadn’t addressed in the resolution, and so we took a few weeks to go back and add them.”

Even before the Seattle resolution passed, the federal government released new regulations requiring more stringent testing and labeling of oil shipped by rail. Tesoro announced the purchase of a new fleet of safer tanker cars, and some rail and oil companies around the country are making similar upgrades.

While these actions do not address the full scope of concerns surrounding oil-by-rail, they are a sign that the efforts of grassroots organizers and city officials are influencing the rail industry, as well as state and federal lawmakers.

Following the announcement that the city passed the resolution, Emily Johnston of 350 Seattle said, "The resolution makes Seattle the first jurisdiction in the country to focus legislation related to these trains not only on the safety issues, but also—explicitly—on climate.”


Molly Rusk wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Molly is a recent graduate of the program in Creative Writing at the University of Washington and an online reporting intern at YES!

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