The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails

Plans afoot to move 800,000 barrels daily by train.
This post is 1 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails


Editor’s note. The report referenced below is a living document, and Sightline researchers update it regularly to reflect new developments. For the most recent facts and figures, please see the report, The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails.


Sightline is releasing a new report: The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails. It’s the first comprehensive look at the nearly one dozen plans that have emerged since 2012 to ship crude oil by train to Northwest refineries and port terminals.

oil_rail_map_021814--150ppiMoving large quantities of oil by rail would be a major change for the Northwest’s energy economy, but so far the proposals have largely escaped notice.

Why does it matter? Because:

  • In Oregon and Washington, 10 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 put an estimated 22 mile-long trains per day on the Northwest’s railway system. Many worry about the risk of oil spills from thousands of loaded oil trains that may soon traverse the region each year.
  • Taken together, the oil-by-rail projects planned for the Northwest would be capable of delivering enough fuel to exceed the region’s oil refining capacity. Ironically, two of the facilities that would handle oil by rail were originally built to supply renewable fuels.Oil_by_rail_021614--150ppi
  • The projects are designed to transport fuel from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota, but the infrastructure could also be used to export Canadian tar sands oil. In fact, if all of the oil-by-rail projects were built, they would be capable of moving nearly 800,000 barrels per day—that’s more oil capacity than either of the controversial pipelines planned in British Columbia.
  • On Puget Sound, three of the region’s five refineries already receive oil-by-rail shipments and the other two are planning new facilities. Three proposals for Grays Harbor would move oil along the Washington coast. And on the Columbia River, one port terminal is already receiving oil-by-rail shipments, while officials at Vancouver are planning by far the region’s largest facility.

Read the full report here: The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails, and see the video below summarizing the report’s findings.



  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    We really just need to start taxing this stuff. Are you increasing the likelihood of spilling oil or coal in our forests? There’s a tax for that. Slowing down transportation in our cities with huge trains? Tax. Importing high-lifecycle-carbon fuels? Better bring your checkbook.

    We can’t be the nation’s dumping ground for externalities. Or at least not for free.

  2. Marti says:

    I understand the concerns about possible spills but the reality is that oil in tanker trucks travers the nations roads each and every day, drive through our cities to deliver oil to gas stations etc. Rail traffice is actually probably safer than being on the increasingly decrepit Interstate and state highway systems. The outrage shouldn’t be directed at using an alternative form of transport. America is not going to quit driving and businesses aren’t going to quit using petroleum products or natural gas. What we need to pay attention to is ensuring the infrastructure we do have, including our railway system, is kept up properly to minimize risk. There is some risk inherent in all things. The concern should be in managing that risk. Personally, I’d rather see it on rail cars than in pipelines. The infrastructure aleady exists.

    • vicki johnson says:

      Really? Tell that to the majority of the Senior population in my area that will be denied emergency vehicle access due to the 3, 1.5 mile long trains set to run through my tiny own DAILY!! This will hold up traffic on our ONLY two major thoroughfares for 20-30 mins EACH TIME!!!
      Tell that o the average income home owners whose property values will take a significant fall when the rails begin running again.

      Tell that to all the people who rely on the rivers for sport, recreation and fishing when the trains fail and fall into our annual flooding rivers!

      It’s pretty easy to just sit in your easy chair and posit on something that has the potential to forever change MY town. Do you live on the rail line?

      • Marti says:

        I have lived along rail lines actually. When first lived in Boise I lived directly behind the Amtrak train depot. When I went to college in Ft. Collins I lived on the street where the train ran right through town. Living by a railroad line is a choice. While I sympathize with the Senior population who may live on the “wrong side of the tracks”, I honestly think that is a smoke screen issue. And people who are concerned there property values will go down because they live along railroad tracks. Give me a break. The rails were always intended to be used on a regular basis. I guess the oil could be trucked on large tanker trucks through your town regularly instead. Sorry but I support rail travel for oil, coal, sugar beets, lumber, automobiles, potatoes, people and a host of other things. It’s cheaper, more efficient and if done properly it should increase the value of a community, not the other way around.

      • Mark says:

        If my math is correct, a 1.5 mile train traveling at 60 MPH would take 1.5 minutes to pass a stationary point. A slow train at 30 MPH would take 3 minutes. So, three 1.5 mile trains would normally block a road only 10-minutes of each day.

      • Eric de Place says:

        In urban and suburban areas it is very unlikely that a train would be running 60 mph. 30mph is more common. And in places like Seattle they’re clocked at 10 to 15 mph. Plus you’ve got to add in time for sounding bells, closing gates, and then opening them up again.

        It can add up.

  3. David Moore says:

    The need of our time is to reduce carbon emissions and this would take more expensive fuel to motivate reduced fuel consumption. The Bakken oil pollutes huge amounts of water in an arid area and is flaring the natural gas (wastage). Anything that massively increases supply delays conservation. Slow the train expansion for oil and for coal!

    • Naugahyde sandwich says:

      I agree with your premise about the critical need to cut carbon emissions, but otherwise your facts are wrong: (1) the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana are not in an “arid area”; (2) there’s no real evidence that extraction of that oil “pollutes huge amounts of water”; (3) unlike in Pennsylvania, fracking to obtain that Bakken oil is generally done a few miles below the surface, well below the water table, which is not thereby affected; (4) the oil companies probably want to stop the gas flaring just as much as you do — it’s not in their interest to waste their valuable product; and (5) there has been no “massive” increase in the supply of oil — otherwise the price of gas would be far far lower than the $4/gallon we’re now paying.

      • Marti says:

        The price of gas is determined on the global market using dollars. It has nothing to do with U.S. production whatsoever. Hence gas is not cheaper because we are producing more. We pay the lowest price in the first world countries because we don’t tax oil and gas at the levels that Europeans do. It’s as simple as that. But then, that’s why they generally have superior health care and subsidized educational systems. Something the US hasn’t had since the 70% income tax cap in the 1950’s through 1970’s was removed.

        Unless Americans choose to reduce their footprint on the planet and live more like Europeans and less like spoiled brats, we will continue to need rail lines and methods to move oil for ourselves and to fuel our consummptive habits through international trade.

      • Pete says:

        Marti, if you love the way Europeans live then there is an easy solution for you…

  4. David Moore says:

    The water polluted is not the whole water table but the water used in the hydrofracking process. Hydro means water, get it? The Bakken fields are so large they are a big part of the global market, eh?

  5. The Gears says:

    With some good engineering on rail tanker cars and loading terminals Alberta tar sands oil could be rail transported without being solvent diluted. If this was possible half the rail traffic could be eliminated to get the oil to a port or refinery. Then dilutants could be added if and as required.

    Established rail systems should be fully utilized before any pipe line construction is started. Sure as hell the foreign market for oil will change about the time the pipe line is up and running.

  6. Dirk says:

    Thank you for presenting the challenges we face in a comprehensive article. As a professional who has spent the majority of my 30+ year career in the oil industry I will say I have been on both sides of the hydrocarbon for energy debate over my career.
    To most of your audience who will argue for open and free markets for oil and coal resource companies I will offer my primary issues.
    1. I have deliberately chosen to live in Washington to enjoy its closeness to nature and environmental policies as opposed to living in a business free for all state such as Texas. As a result we do not enjoy low energy costs & high employment, but we also do not have the polluting lifestyle of the Gulf coast.
    2. I suggest that the false, low cost of shipping both petroleum and coal products via rail encourages the growth of these transport modes. Rail and pipelines companies should be held accountable to higher operating standards (ie safety, operational cost/redundancies, incident insurance) if they wish to encumber the communities along their right of way corridors. These companies should also be liable in court for mismanagement. Major incidents such as is happening in Canada now should not be a burden for our citizens.

    Additionally I would ask, how many of these corporate executives’ families are personally living with the inconveniences that their companies are imposing on the various towns they transport through?

  7. Chris WIlke says:

    2 weeks after this article, we have a horrible rail tragedy in Quebec. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

    After reading the Sightline article above and this NYT article, do you think it could happen here? Given the industry’s track record for derailments, how many times a year are we willing to “roll the dice”?

  8. Rail Planning says:

    Railroads place safety as the top priority when it comes to moving goods. It is better to opt for Rail facility than the road for oil transfer as considering people’s safety. With the help of proper engineering, there can be less possibility of oil spills with a proper smooth transportation.

    • Kimberly says:

      Unfortunately, the railroads are not the problem. Oil spills are not the problem. Oil cars are the problem–its a less stable mode of transport for a highly volatile substance. Granted, the idea of engineering assistance is a nice one. But that’s just not the problem at hand. Until someone can figure out how to move oil in an train car (relatively new concept in of itself) with absolutely no risk of spontaneous combustion, count me out. And even then, still count me out! I like my NW the way it is.

  9. Sam Churchill says:

    A big thanks to Eric and all the people who have done such great work on Sightline.

    Your research always seems solid and cuts through the hype, addressing the core issues. Thanks for inspiring me. My Oregon Green Energy Guide is an effort to bring this information together.

    I recently moved to Hayden Island, on the Columbia, and can now see all the coal trains moving by on the other side of the river. I am amazed by the number of coal trains (and train traffic in general).

    I’m trying to establish a live webcam that will point to both the I-5 Bridge, the E/W train traffic on the Washington side of the Columbia, and the BN railroad bridge, just a mile down from the Interstate vehicular bridge.

    The live Columbia River webcam will hopefully be operational shortly. I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate an interactive pan/tilt capability.

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