Sightline has a new accounting of Northwest oil train projects.
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. Moving large quantities of oil by rail would represent a major change for the Northwest’s energy economy, and the plans now in development puts the region’s communities at risk.
Why does it matter?
- 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 11 loaded 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. Read more »
What an internal industry dispute says about coal dust risk.
Amid all the debate about the risk of coal trains spreading coal dust into areas near the railroad tracks, it’s often forgotten that the subject is controversial even within the industry. How to control coal dust—or whether it can be done at all to a meaningful degree—has been the subject of a long-running dispute between those who ship the coal and those who carry it. The coal companies or utilities that ship the coal are on one side and the railroads that carry it are on the other.
The controversy developed originally not because either side was concerned about the spread of coal dust into neighboring communities or rivers, but because coal dust accumulation had become so severe in places that it actually destabilized tracks, resulting in derailments or trackside fires. In response, the railways began levying fees on the coal shippers to cover the costs of treating the coal with a chemical spray designed to reduce dust emissions. The coal shippers objected, arguing that the fee was unfair and that the coal dust control techniques are ineffective.
The result was a years-long battle before a federal regulatory agency, the US Surface Transportation Board (STB). It was finally resolved in December 2013 when the STB ruled mostly in favor of the railways—the government denied the fee, but instead allowed the railways to require coal shippers to undertake the dust-reduction techniques the railways wanted. (The ruling is here.) The legal arcana may be of little interest outside law firms, but the research results that supported the decision are relevant to everyone with a stake in the coal exports debate.
The STB relied on the findings of a seven-month experiment called the Super Trial designed to answer some of the persistent questions about how effective coal dust suppression techniques really are. Although the government concluded that it is possible for shippers to substantially reduce coal dust, the research findings also leave open several major worries, among them:
- Coal dust from empty railcars, which may emit as much dust as loaded cars and which are never treated to reduce dust.
- Coal dust reduction techniques may not be effective at high speeds or over long distances.
- The studies tell us little about the extent of very small particle emissions, which may be the most risky to human health.
- Much of the methodology and results are proprietary, making them hard to evaluate.
It’s worth taking a closer look at the STB case because the answers can help us glean important information about what large-scale rail shipping would mean for coal dust in the Pacific Northwest. Read more »
Steep declines hint at Bertha's irrelevance.
Bertha’s woes are hogging the spotlight. But while everyone’s been looking down, something going on up in the air may prove just as important in the long run: traffic volumes on the Alaskan Way Viaduct have collapsed since the state started its construction project.
Take a look at the trends, courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s traffic maps:
Astonishing! Viaduct traffic fell by 48,000 trips in 3 years—a reduction that, I’m sure, many transportation planners would have thought unthinkable.
Where did the traffic go?
Read more »
Well, maybe not at the moment, Bertha.
From a co-worker’s recent walk home…
Bertha, Better than a Shovel. Image by Nicole Bernard. (Used with permission.)
Which one gets to where it's going?
In a few months, King County voters will be asked to invest in the future of our local roads and bus system. In particular, Metro needs additional revenue to avoid crippling cuts to its transit system.
Just a few years ago, Seattle voters had another opportunity to support local roads and buses. Instead of investing in changes to make local streets and transit function without the Alaskan Way Viaduct, voters said they preferred to dig an expensive tunnel underneath the city.
How’s that working out? Not so hot. Imagine how far that money could go if we invested it in machines that actually reach their destinations. Like buses.
Need help visualizing the costs? See (and share!) the infographic below:
Infographic by GoodMeasures.biz.
Notes: To arrive at Bertha’s per-foot tunneling costs, we divided the cost of the contract to Seattle Tunnel Partners ($1.44 billion) by the number of feet in the 1.7-mile tunnel (8976). We did not factor in costs of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project that were not included in the tunnel contract.
To calculate bus service costs, we divided King County Metro’s 2013 operating expenses ($639.8 million)—which include everything from maintaining vehicles and bus stops to paying drivers to supporting agency overhead—by the overall number of buses in its fleet (1,400).
A majority on the city council appears pro-cap.
Unless minds change in the next two weeks, Seattle appears headed towards capping the number of drivers who have turned their personal cars into vehicles-for-hire and have been working for companies like UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar, though city council members have not settled on where that cap should be.
Their working proposal would not limit the number of overall vehicles that those “Transportation Network Companies” (TNCs) can dispatch on their system, but companies like Lyft and UberX and Sidecar would also have to start adding taxis and licensed for-hire vehicles or limousines to their smartphone apps in order to grow or maintain their service.
Among other amendments, the council on Friday voted to abandon a confusing proposal that would have limited “casual” TNC drivers—ones who weren’t interested in sitting through the city’s two-day for-hire driver’s license class—to working 16 hours per week. Instead, TNC drivers can drive as many hours as they want but must take the same safety class as current taxi and for-hire drivers. The city will explore ways to streamline and focus that training on pertinent safety issues.
The Seattle City Council did not take a vote Friday on the contentious issue of whether to put caps on new TNC drivers, but at a committee meeting attended by every councilmember, at least five—Bruce Harrell, Sally Clark, Mike O’Brien, Kshama Sawant, and Jean Godden—expressed support for limiting new TNC drivers at some level during a two-year pilot program. Read more »
Top 40 love songs, how children really succeed, and more.
Exempting bike-share programs from mandatory helmet laws? Still a great idea.
Sightline Fellow Valerie Tarico tells what getting thin taught her about being fat, and it’s amazing.
Sure wish I had read this book before raising my kids. Sorry, guys! It turns out, according Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, that cognitive skills such as math and vocabulary are less important to personal fulfillment and success in life than character traits such as perseverance and grit. The book summarizes a flotilla of studies looking for clues to fighting poverty through better education and other youth service programs, intriguingly including chess teams. It carries the reader forward, however, on one story after another about kids and those who are figuring out how to help them through the insights of the new research. It’s the best thing I’ve read on education in years.
Another optimistic view of self-driving cars, this time with computer models and such. Fascinating! But I found Jon Geeting’s piece in Next City a more realistic appraisal, because it considered the politics, not just the tech.
I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent two-part New Yorker essay on our upcoming sixth mass extinction with both rapt attention and a constant pit in my stomach. Yet there’s also something eerily calming about her writing, something that lulls you into a longer-view geologic sort of perspective that for me elevates both my awe at nature and my wonder at humanity. I look forward to reading her book on the subject, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which has already garnered plenty of attention and interviews in the media: NPR, NYT (review by Al Gore), Washington Post, Democracy Now!, and even The Daily Show.
I also just stumbled on this: what Vancouver’s Coal Harbour looked like 116 years ago.
It’s Valentine’s day. There are so many sustainable ways to show your love—many of the best of which involve buying no stuff at all (well, if you don’t count sustainable, locally-made chocolate). But if you’re buying jewelry for your sweetie, here’s a guide for steering clear of “dirty” gold. Read more »
Cascadia Climate Collaborative looks at the emotional dimensions of this fight.
Anna and her daughter. Selfie.
A friend posed an interesting question on Facebook earlier today: What if the reason most people don’t take climate action, paradoxically, is that they WANT to be hopeful about the future?
As somebody who’s working actively to promote climate policy solutions I feel this tension everyday battling it out in my own psyche. I feel it when I look at my daughter and, consciously or unconsciously, shut out the idea that climate impacts will shape her future—and not in a good way.
In fact, I’m a firm believer that we all have a little (or big) climate denier living in our own bodies. If we didn’t we’d go mad with fear and anger and anxiety. But I also believe that finding positive ways to confront our own denier demons will help us become more engaged, more positive, and more compelling to those we ask to join us in this work.
That was the gist of a short talk I gave almost a year ago, on “harnessing our dark optimism,” at the Cascadia Climate Collaborative’s first conference for climate movers and shakers at the Whidbey Institute. (And the friend who posted the question today on Facebook happens to be Joe Brewer, a fellow speaker at that same conference.)
Read more »
DOT-111 tanks cars are unsafe at any speed.
“Clearly, the heads and shells of DOT-111 tank cars…can almost always be expected to breach in derailments that involve pileups or multiple car-to-car impacts.” — National Transportation Safety Board, June 19, 2009.
Much of the oil traveling by train to the profusion of new oil-by-rail terminals is shipped in what one Chicago-area leader called the “Ford Pinto of railroad cars.” These are the soda-can shaped tank cars, DOT-111s, built to standards in effect as recently as 2011 that have a “high incidence of failure during accidents.” If used to ship crude oil, their design flaws pretty much guarantee that a serious train derailment will lead to oil spills or massive explosions.
One summer night in 2013, a rail accident involving DOT-111s resulted in a catastrophic explosion that killed 47 people in a small town in Quebec. In the months that followed, DOT-111s carrying oil unleashed towering explosions in Alabama, North Dakota, and New Brunswick.
These mishaps were not accidents, so much as they were the logical consequence of a sea change in the way that we transport crude oil. A few years ago, a sudden oil boom from shale geologies, such as the Bakken formation of western North Dakota, caught almost everyone by surprise. With few good options for moving the abundant new found oil to market, companies turned to railroads in a big way: shipments of crude oil by rail spiked, and then spiked again.
Yet shippers are moving oil largely in the old DOT-111 tank cars that for more than 20 years we’ve known are unsafe. In fact, since 1991, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued several crash investigation and safety recommendation reports involving tank cars documenting the inadequacies of the DOT-111 standard.
Things came to a head after a high profile collision in 2009 when a slow moving train composed of DOT-111 cars hauling ethanol derailed at a road-crossing in Cherry Valley, Illinois. The resulting fireball fatally burned a passenger and seriously injured three others in vehicles waiting at the crossing. Local officials had to evacuate residents within a half-mile of the incident.
A tank car carrying ethanol involved in the Cherry Valley derailment showing head (tank car end ) failure lying next to burned automobile. Arrow points to head failure. (Credit: NTSB)
Read more »
But not if Seattle 'ridesharing' companies keep the city in the dark.
It’s been a hard road to reconcile Seattle’s broken taxi system with the as-of-yet unregulated environment in which popular smartphone-based ‘ridesharing’ companies like Lyft, Uber and Sidecar have been operating.
The plan that City Councilmember Mike O’Brien unveiled at a committee meeting last week doesn’t come close to doing what I’ve previously suggested ought to be done—removing taxi caps entirely, regulating vehicles-for-hire and drivers to make sure they are safe, and letting the market sort out how many cars-for-hire ought to be on the road.
I would still advocate for that in a perfect world. This would help unlock the vast untapped potential of ridesharing in personal cars, especially if companies like Lyft or Sidecar grow beyond providing cab-lite service and employ thousands of drivers who pick people up and share space in their cars when they’re already on the road. This is a transformative, sustainable solution that expands transportation choices and costs taxpayers nothing.
But we live in a more complicated real world, one with a specific history. Thousands of taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers—many, many of whom are immigrants who support families on the fares they collect—have spent years working under a set of illogical and innovation-killing rules that we, as a city, have imposed upon them.
The two-year pilot program proposed by O’Brien could serve as a reasonable bridge between the old and new systems, if the different parties were willing to try. It’s not clear that they are, and it’s entirely possible that if the city adopts his proposal, at least some and possibly all of the ridesharing companies will pack up and take their services elsewhere. Read more »