Big Oil companies’ push to extract and refine more extreme forms of oil has led to a surge of trains carrying toxic, explosive, and climate-polluting oil on our nation’s rail lines.
Oil train traffic has grown by 4,000 percent in the past six years, due to the rapid increase in fracking for oil in the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota and in tar sands oil extraction in Canada. An alarming rate of derailments and explosions across North America has followed.
In Maryland, oil trains are a growing danger to communities near rail lines and to Baltimore in particular. The oil industry is targeting Baltimore — with its large and centrally located port — as a gateway to ship crude oil to East Coast refineries. And since the crude export ban was lifted in December of 2015, the oil industry has been given a green light to ship crude oil worldwide.
To protect our communities and climate, CCAN is fighting to put the brakes on Big Oil’s plans to use Baltimore as a gateway for extreme crude oil.
Oil Trains in Baltimore: Putting 165,000 residents at risk
Already, nearly half of all oil transported by rail to the East Coast comes to Maryland and Virginia. That’s nearly one in six barrels of the national total transported by rail. Rail companies have fought to keep oil train routes secret in Maryland, and have even sued the state to prevent their public disclosure.
However, we know these trains are already rolling through Baltimore in large numbers. A company called Axeon shipped more than 100 million gallons of crude oil out of the Fairfield Peninsula in South Baltimore over the years 2013 and 2014 (up from zero gallons the previous two years). Substantially more crude oil passes through Maryland communities, but that data is not captured by regulators unless the oil is unloaded.
According to a Forest Ethics analysis of known rail routes, oil trains travel in close proximity to Baltimore homes, schools, churches, and major economic hubs like the Inner Harbor. When overlaid with U.S. Census data, that puts 165,000 Baltimore residents in the oil train “blast zone” — the area that would be directly impacted if a train were to derail and explode.
Explosive Oil: Too Dangerous for the Rails
The Bakken crude oil that the oil industry is moving on trains is more toxic and explosive than conventional oil. It contains a higher concentration of flammable methane and toxic fracking chemicals.
Not only are the contents extremely hazardous, but the trains themselves are outdated and dangerous. A study by the National Transportation Safety Board found that crude oil trains have a high incidence of failure. The oldest model trains, labeled “DOT-111,” have derailed dozens of times in the past year. But newer “CPC-1232” train car models have also exploded in recent derailments.
When accidents happen, the human and environmental impacts are costly. The deadliest oil train explosion occurred in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Québec. Twenty crude oil trains derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and flattening 30 buildings. In April 2014, 10 newer tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, VA, spilling about 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil and setting the James River on fire for two hours. Since January 2015, five trains have derailed and exploded across North America.
In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new rules intended to improve the safety of oil trains. However, the rules include loopholes and weak standards that would allow hazardous trains on the rails for years to come.
Air Pollution: Disproportionate Impacts to South Baltimore
The South Baltimore area that oil companies want to use as a gateway for processing and shipping crude oil already bears a disproportionate burden of toxic industrial pollution compared to the rest of Maryland. In particular, the Curtis Bay neighborhood of South Baltimore is the most polluted neighborhood in the state of Maryland, hosting 37 percent of all toxic stationary source air pollution in Maryland, and more than 87 percent of all toxic stationary source air pollution in Baltimore City.
Climate Change: Deepening Dependence on Harmful Fossil Fuels
The tremendous growth of Bakken shale oil production in North Dakota has also led to a rapid rise in the production of associated natural gas, which is often “flared off” on-site – so much so that it can be seen from space. Flaring at the Bakken shale emits roughly 6.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, which is the greenhouse gas pollution equivalent of adding about 1.4 million cars onto the road each year.
Fracking wells leak gases into groundwater and into the air. One of the gases, methane, is approximately 86-times as potent a greenhouse gas pollutant as carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. The combination of flaring and methane leakage during Bakken oil extraction contributes to cumulative heat-trapping emissions that are potentially much higher than other sources of oil.
Community Organizing: Beating Back Big Oil’s Plans
Mayors, first responders, neighborhood associations, and citizens are coming together all over the country to take a stand against oil trains and crude oil export terminals — including right here in Baltimore.
In 2014, Texas-based Targa Terminals applied for a permit to establish a new crude oil shipping terminal in South Baltimore to send millions of gallons of crude oil through the Chesapeake Bay to East Coast refineries. But Maryland regulators hit the pause button on Targa’s plans in June 2015, in response to detailed technical comments submitted by CCAN and the Environmental Integrity Project, along with comments from hundreds of concerned citizens.
Due to this public pressure, Targa officially withdrew its permit application in July 2016. This victory will protect Baltimore residents from an additional 380 million gallons of dangerous crude oil being shipped through the city on railways per year.
Thanks to your help, we’ve prevented an immediate increase in oil trains moving through Baltimore neighborhoods — for now. But stronger city, state and federal action is urgently needed to protect our health, safety and climate.
Leaders at all levels can protect communities from dangerous oil trains:
BALTIMORE CITY COUNCIL: In January 2016, Baltimore City Council President Jack Young introduced an ordinance to study the health and safety risks associated with oil trains and crude oil shipping within Baltimore. The City Council failed to vote on this measure before the 2016 term ended in December, despite more than 2,000 petitions and public comments from city residents urging action. As activists work with City Council Members to introduce a new piece of legislation in the 2017, we need to keep up the pressure!
STATE LEGISLATORS: Our state legislators should support legislation during the next General Assembly session to require rail companies to disclose the route, frequency and volume of crude oil being transported by rail. Delegate Clarence Lam introduced such a bill in 2015.
FEDERAL LEADERS: Our federal leaders can enact an immediate ban on oil trains, because there is NO safe way to transport extreme tar sands and Bakken crude oil. At a minimum, the Department of Transportation can take the oldest and most dangerous cars, including DOT-111s, off the rails.
To get involved with the campaign, contact: Taylor Smith-Hams, our Maryland Healthy Communities Organizer, at taylor@ChesapeakeClimate.org.
CCAN Fact Sheet — Oil Trains in Baltimore: Too Dangerous for the Rails 2/2017
Maryland Environmental Health Network Fact Sheet: Public Health and Safety Risks of Crude-by-Rail
Press Release: Company Withdraws Plans for Crude Oil Terminal in Baltimore
Ordinance 16-0621: View the text of the ordinance before the Baltimore City Council.
CCAN Fact Sheet — MD HB 1434 – Rail Safety Act of 2016
ForestEthics: Oil Train Blast Zone interactive map.
Oil Change International Report: “Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude by Rail in America.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch: NTSB investigating derailment, oil spill in Lynchburg.
Vice Documentary: “The Crude Gamble of Oil by Rail: Bomb Trains.”
Washington Post: Disaster in Canada puts focus on oil transportation.