By Laurel Peltier, Baltimore Fishbowl
If Targa Resources has its way, “oil bomb” trains will rumble through Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on their way to the company’s proposed Curtis Bay oil storage facility. The same type of oil trains that exploded in West Virginia this week may already be chugging through Baltimore, but no one knows for sure if that’s true or not. Let’s take a look at how our country’s fracking boom may put thousands of Maryland homes squarely in a potential oil train blast zone and also learn who’s trying to protect Maryland’s citizens.
Monday’s massive oil train explosion in West Virginia was the latest in a string of recent derailments and deadly explosions. Check out the slides below detailing recent oil train incidents close to home. The Lac-Mégantic, Quebec derailment and explosion killed 47 people and flattened most of the downtown area.
There’s oil in them thar hills
What’s driving this train wreck is that fracking has not only unlocked natural gas miles underground, but also helped U.S. energy firms gain access to crude oil in North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields. The fracking oil boom has been fast and furious and North Dakota’s oil fields now pump 1 million gallons a day. All this new oil supply has driven gas prices down to $2.15 a gallon.
Anyone seen a pipeline near North Dakota?
Not home to many oil and gas pipelines, North Dakota’s “Bakken Shale Oil” is primarily shipped by train with over 500,000 rail cars now chugging around the U.S. delivering oil to ports each year. The oil is then shipped by ocean tankers to refineries. Before the fracking boom in 2008, just 10,000 rail cars carried crude.
But, those 10,000 rail cars in 2008 carried a different type of crude oil. Independent research suggests Bakken crude contains more chemicals and gases than regular crude. A recent U.S. government safety alert states that Bakken oil, “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil,” explaining the term “oil bomb trains.” Some groups even suspect the industry isn’t processing the oil correctly and leaving in high levels of gases. North Dakota’s petroleum industry begs to differ with that assessment. “Bakken crude oil is very similar to other light crudes and meets all federal regulations and tank car design standards for shipping flammable liquids by rail,” it claims.
Let’s store Bakken oil in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor!
With millions of gallons of U.S. oil needing to find refineries, Targa Resources, a huge Texas-based pipeline and storage company, is just one of many looking to build out oil storage and shipping facilities. Targa has received preliminary “air pollution” approval from the Maryland Department of the Environment to convert its Curtis Bay facility to an oil storage facility. Targa’s plan is for up to 9 million barrels of oil a year, most likely Bakken fracked oil, to travel by train right through downtown Baltimore, past Camden Yards on to Targa’s tanks in Curtis Bay. The non-profit ForestEthics has created this Oil Train Blast Zone to help citizens learn if their home or workplace resides in a potential oil kaboom zone.
Wait a minute here.
Once the environmental groups Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), Environmental Integrity Project and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation got wind of the Targa project, they started ringing the fire alarm.
The U.S. rail system is governed by the federal government as trains cross state lines. Jon Kenney of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network explains, “Maryland and Baltimore City can’t just say ‘no’ to oil trains traveling through their jurisdictions. There have been no oil train safety studies in Maryland. At this point, Baltimore City and the Maryland legislature will have to take a leadership role in protecting its citizens.” CCAN has been working closely with the Baltimore City Council to craft a plan that would protect citizens, first responders, property and our environment.
Another unnerving fact is that while citizens have reported seeing oil trains in Maryland and within Baltimore, railroad companies have been withholding oil train shipment data. When Maryland requested oil shipment information, the two big railroad companies, CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway, sued the state claiming that revealing oil train shipment information creates a security threat and violates company trade secrets. According to a recent Baltimore Sun article, CSX claims the oil railway cars are empty, yet no data exists to verify this claim.
Ironically, Maryland’s Delegate Clarence Lam introduced oil train legislation the same day the oil train derailed in West Virginia. The proposed legislation would require Maryland-specific oil train safety studies, and would also require disclosure of any oil train shipments within Maryland.
What to do?
Given the mess the Howard Street Tunnel fire caused Charm City in 2001, it’s reasonable for citizens and environmental groups to question the logic and safety of allowing oil trains to legally pass through Baltimore. Raising awareness about the oil bomb trains cruising by Camden Yards is key to potentially changing the outcome.
Consider email or calling your Baltimore City Council member and state elected officials to voice your concern about the prospect of oil bomb trains traveling to Targa’s Curtis Bay facility. Snail mail is also effective in getting your elected official’s attention. Forward the Oil Train Blast Zone web site to your friends and family – a nice heads up in case they live in the blast zone.
If you’re ready to get into the action, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network is hosting a Targa Action Team Meeting on February 26, 2015.
Examples of recent oil train derailments: