In the News  Archive

Throttling back on fossil fuels

Rutland Herald
June 14, 2015

Op-ed by Brian Shupe - Executive Director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council

Most Vermonters are aware that our state Legislature recently passed — and Gov. Peter Shumlin is poised to sign — ambitious legislation aimed at cleaning up Lake Champlain and the state’s rivers and streams. At the same time, many state leaders are talking about putting a price on carbon-based fuels to account for the true cost of these increasingly dangerous energy sources.

Despite this good news, we’ve got a problem. Just across Lake Champlain, in New York, poorly regulated oil trains rumble along old rail lines and bridges just yards from the shore, posing a serious threat to the lake and the communities that surround it.

Recently, representatives from the National Wildlife Federation, Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Adirondack Council, the Sierra Club, and the Lake Champlain Committee, stood on the banks of Lake Champlain in Port Kent, N.Y., just yards from a Canadian Pacific railway line, and issued a sharp warning: A spill or explosion along Lake Champlain could be a major environmental disaster and an unprecedented tragedy for area residents.

Currently, trains of the black tankers — so-called DOT-111 cars — carry tens of millions of gallons of crude oil from places like North Dakota along this line, just across the lake from Burlington, to Albany, N.Y. Much of that oil is highly volatile Bakken crude. Bakken crude was what caught fire in July of 2013 when a train derailed and exploded in southern Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting downtown Lac Megantic (population 5,900) just a few miles from the Maine border.

The domestic oil boom in the U.S. and Canada has got trains running like never before across the continent. According to the Association of American Railroads, between 2006 and 2015 the amount of crude oil and refined petroleum products transported on U.S. rail lines nearly tripled.

As should be expected, the increase in rail transport has lead to an increase in accidents. In 2013, more crude oil (1.15 million gallons) was spilled from train accidents than was spilled in all of the years between 1975 and 2012 (800,000 gallons) combined. So far this year, there have been train accidents and associated crude oil fires in West Virginia, Illinois, North Dakota and two in Ontario, Canada.

Now, a Massachusetts-based firm, Global Partners, has proposed adding a heating and pumping facility to an oil storage and transfer plant it runs in Albany so that the plant could heat Canadian tar sands oil — that nasty, climate-busting stuff that comes from Alberta and really should stay in the ground — so it could be more easily shipped.

The plan would clear the way for the same train line to carry this heavy oil that is strip-mined from vast stretches of boreal forests into the market. Mining and then burning this oil is pumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so much so that former NASA climatologist John Hansen said that if Alberta’s tar sands oil is extracted and burned, it will be “game over for the planet.”

Some argue that slowing oil-by-rail shipments will increase the pressure for pipelines, like the Keystone XL pipeline, or the use of the Portland-Montreal pipeline that runs across the Northeast Kingdom. That notion is based on the false assumption that we have no choice but to double down on dirty fuel, digging it up and hauling it around in ever-greater quantities. For the sake of the climate, clean water, and the safety of our communities, we’ve simply got to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels. Throttling back — not up — is the only option.

Specifically in terms of shipping oil by rail, the National Wildlife Federation has called for an immediate moratorium on the shipments of oil trains until safety can be guaranteed. VNRC agrees. Given the progress we are making on cleaning up Lake Champlain — and the growing urgency to deal with climate change — allowing this threat to remain, indeed grow, makes no sense.

Brian Shupe is executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. He lives in Waitsfield.

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