One of my family’s favorite movies is Unstoppable with Dezel Washington. That movie tracks somewhat closely a real life incident that it is based on the CSX 8888, also known as the Crazy 8s incident. In both the movie and the incident there are tanker cars carrying molten phenol and an un-manned “runaway” train. The reasons this happened are the same in both versions – a misaligned switch, an engineer leaving the cab to address it and thinking that applying the independent air brake would be adequate.
The movie is a gripping, seat of your pants drama about how ill prepared the powers that be are to rapidly respond to the inevitable shouldn’ts that still happen. It turns out that when it comes to railroad issues, the powers that be are the railroads themselves (the fox guarding the chicken coop – the serious danger policed by the source of that danger).
I wanted to watch the Unstoppable movie again after I recently listened to the Feb 25, 2015 episode of NPR Fresh Air titled “A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars” which was an interview of the investigative journalist, Marcus Stern. And to complicate things even more, the railroads don’t have 100% control over the “source” of the danger highlighted in this segment but control over the quality of those tanker cars is in the hands of those whose product is inside those tanker cars.
Train wrecks involving tanker cars are increasing in frequency. The most note-worthy of recent disasters in the interview occurred in Lac-Megantic Quebec Canada and involved a train that was unattended, which experienced a failure of its brakes that sent it traveling downhill at speeds reaching 60 mi/hour whereupon it encountered a curve causing it to derail, killing at least 47 people in a bar there on a Saturday night in July 2013.
It is not surprising to discover that BIG money obscures the dangerous risks now taking place. The onset of fracking in North Dakota and the existence of East Coast refineries that were not competitive processing imported oil and the convenience of rail lines and available tank cars to connect the two . . . how BIG is the payoff ? – this whole economic system is “worth tens of billions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars” according to Stern.
So how many tanker cars are we actually talking about ? In 2008, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude oil. In 2014, just 6 years later, that number had jumped to 400,000. And regarding each train, they are now often 100 tanker cars extending a mile in length carrying a combined total of as much as 3 million gallons. Does this represent some change from trains only a few years ago ? Yeah, it does. In the past when hauling crude oil by rail, there might be only a couple of tankers and they’d be split up over the length of the train, reducing the risk.
Is there some characteristic that makes the North Dakota crude more dangerous. Well, yeah. It is known as “light oil” and it is a lot like gasoline. It’s actually a mixture of oil and liquid natural gases (methane, butane, propane) which are suspended in the oil. As this travels the thousands of miles from North Dakota to the East Coast, the gas part begins to separate from the liquid part leaving a gaseous blanket of propane sitting on top of the liquid oil. A breach and a spark and you have fireballs shooting hundreds of feet in the air with flaming oil shooting in all directions and such explosions can continue for several days. The emergency responders can’t do anything more than keep people away and let it burn out.
Is there something about the tanker cars being used that would make a breach more likely ? Yeah, there is. The most common model is the DOT-111 which was designed back in the 1960s for non-flammable liquids like corn syrup. This particular design is highly likely to rupture in a derailment because the shell is not thick enough. The opening at the top through which the oil is loaded into the tanker can break off in derailments. The valves don’t shut properly. At the bottom, there’s a fitting that is used to remove the oil at the refinery that also tends to break. Both ends of the tanker car need to reinforced as well. The DOT-111 is used by producers and refiners because of the economics – there are simply a lot of old DOT-111s available. Presently as many as 100,000 of them are transporting oil.
Why isn’t anyone doing something about the use of these dangerously inappropriate tanker cars ? The railroad did put into effect in Oct 2011 a mandate for tougher cars with thicker shells, though not nearly as thick as they need to be nor are there the other improvements that could increase the safety of transporting fuel on rails. And the mandate is very limited in scope – it only applies if a “new” car is built. Then, that new tanker must meet the new standards. The problem is that there are still hundreds of thousands of the old “legacy” cars still out there and they are active on the rails.
Here’s where it gets interesting . . . although the railroads are concerned, getting the tanker cars phased out and replaced is NOT under their control. The “shippers” (the refineries that take them and the producers that load them in North Dakota) are the owners of these railcars. Therefore the burden of upgrading these falls on them. And once again, “it’s the money” preventing increases in safety because it is the owners are the ones that are resisting the upgrades. How much would it cost them ? Maybe $3 billion dollars to upgrade all of the tankers.
To make this division of responsibility a bit clearer – the railroads own the track, have the right-of-ways and the locomotives. And railroads cannot legally refuse to carry any specific cargo but must allow their tracks to be open to the transportation of goods generally. Another issue of concern is that the viability of bridges that railroads also own is their responsibility. The railroad is the only party that can tell you whether the bridge is safe and there are no engineering standards for railroad bridges. The federal government does not inspect the bridges nor does it enforce any regulations related to their safety.
Yeah, what about our government ? Isn’t there something they could do ? The regulatory process includes “negotiated rulemaking”. What this means is that there are a lot of secret behind-closed-door meetings between industry and policy makers. That gives the industry a very loud voice which allows them to delay, dilute, or delete provisions that they object to. And there is gridlock in the process. Here’s an example, the Department of Transportation (regarding anything related to crude-by-rail) has not been able to get these regulations officially functional for more than a year and a half. It is no surprise that the rail-related industries put millions of dollars into lobbying in Washington to keep everything going in the direction of their best interests.
After Lac-Megantic, the Department of Transportation did issue an emergency order that trains may not be left with their engines running while sitting unattended on tracks without “specific” permission. Yet this practice continues and if the railroad receives a complaint about it, they will assert that they were “allowed” to do that. Why ? Because it says in the small print only that they have to have “a plan” (inconveniently in a drawer somewhere ?) for leaving the railroad cars unattended with their engines running.
Also mandated after Lac-Megantic, the railroads must notify state emergency officials whenever they’re going to be sending any train through a state that has more than a million gallons of oil being transported. But anything less than that and the states won’t get notified. Even when notifications are transmitted that’s no guarantee that the information will reach the local community level.
Recently President Obama vetoed the bill approving the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline modification. A Senate vote to override the veto fell short on Wed, March 4th. That certainly is okay with me. I wonder however who that pipeline actually benefits financially. What I found was that it is an indication of the power of the oil industry over this country. The very first order of business when the Republicans took over the Senate was a bill related to an oil pipeline for a foreign oil company to get their product passed through our country to the Gulf coast refineries and ports for export to other countries. Personally, I wonder if the whole Keystone issue isn’t simply a distraction from the more serious concerns that Stern highlighted in his rail tanker car report.
Officially, the reason the president vetoed the bill “is that it circumvents a long-standing administrative process for evaluating whether or not infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country.”, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. In an op-ed piece in the NY Times, Jonathan Waldman suggests that “Getting behind a law holding pipelines to higher standards seems an executive act far more courageous than a veto.” while acknowledging that “In the generation since, regulations have actually gotten laxer . . .”
In the Marcus Stern interview, one of the arguments for a pipeline – not needing to transport by rail any longer was ably refuted. He said – “… the reasons I think that producers and refiners have turned to rail is because pipelines are just so difficult to get approved. You can look at the Keystone XL Pipeline – the big debate over it – and it’s become a lightning rod for this whole discussion. But building pipelines is very contentious. And in addition to that, it takes a lot of time to do it. There’s a big upfront expense. And by the time they were putting pipelines into North Dakota, the North Dakota play might be played out.”
A lot of the Keystone Pipeline already exists as part of an infrastructure that has been built over the last 50 years. All the uproar is about “straightening” it and adding the final completing link to the Gulf Coast. So this pipeline infrastructure project just may not really make either economic or environmental sense. The Alberta Canada Premier, Jim Prentice, puts the issue bluntly this way – “under the Free Trade Agreement . . . this is a free-market product that’s moving across the North American continent one way or the other. Right now, in the absence of pipeline capacity, it will be increasingly carried by railcars. That is not the safest way. It’s not the most environmentally responsible way to carry hydrocarbons”. And it is no surprise that he believes that “… pipelines are an infinitely better choice”. Clearly, blocking further progress to finish the Keystone pipeline won’t ever prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil.
Jonathan Waldman asserts – “Pipelines are the safest way to move oil. They’re an order of magnitude more reliable than trains, and trains are an order of magnitude more reliable than trucks.” Still, whether it is rail or pipeline the ways of regulation in this country are discouraging – “dramatic explosion, calls for reform and powerful resistance”. Waldman makes some reassuring points about the state of technology to make pipelines safer – “smart pigs” that “can record tons of information, and capture unprecedented levels of detail” and are “more agile” – able to traverse narrow pipelines and make tight turns. He notes that leak detection software has gotten better and is now running on big databases that can monitor developing corrosion in pipelines over time.
I think back to Marcus Stern’s point about pipelines in general and it would seem to me that tanker railcars are the more “flexible” choice to move product around, whether to the East Coast or the Gulf Coast. Why not strengthen the overall safety of the rail system ? – the tanker cars, the bridges, the travel ways through the population centers around refineries – why not upgrade the whole rail system ? if the US is going to be “in the petroleum producing business” for a long time any way but perhaps continuously moving around to develop different geographical areas of our energy reserves. I’m not a fan of fracking – not at all !! – but my feelings about it aren’t going to stop it as long as it is reducing our energy dependence on politically volatile areas like the Middle East and of course if there’s a lot of money to be made and lobbying of politicians to support that effort.
Plastic is a petroleum product. Therefore, it would seem safe to assume that when we recycle plastic, we are extending the life of that already extracted natural resource. When we use it for serious construction purposes – such as restroom stall partitions – it should mean that there is less of a need to extract “new” petroleum. Or so one might hope – though markets operate on more and more stuff being generated as a rule. The Container Store believes in Conscious Capitalism and one of the ways they show that by their actions is by using Yemm & Hart’s 513 Tornado for vanity countertops in their retail establishment’s customer restrooms. Funny, somehow the color reminds me of oil flowing . . .
~ Information Resources
Unstoppable (2010 film) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unstoppable_(2010_film)
The CSX 8888 Incident – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSX_8888_incident
A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars – interview w/Marcus Stern at NPR Fresh Air – February 25, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/25/389008046/a-hard-look-at-the-risks-of-transporting-oil-on-rail-tanker-cars
Obama Vetoes Keystone XL Bill, But Fight over Climate-Threatening Oil Pipeline Isn’t Over – posted at Democracy Now.org on Feb 25, 2015 – http://www.democracynow.org/2015/2/25/obama_vetoes_keystone_xl_bill_but
Keystone XL Pipeline Benefits U.S. And Canada, Alberta Premier Says – interview with Jim Prentice, Alberta Premier for NPR Morning Edition on Feb 04, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/04/383724544/keystone-xl-pipeline-benefits-u-s-and-canada-alberta-premier-says
Don’t Kill Keystone XL. Regulate It. by Jonathan Waldman posted March 6, 2015 – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/opinion/dont-kill-keystone-xl-regulate-it.html
What We Stand For – blog by The Container Store – http://standfor.containerstore.com/category/conscious-capitalism/
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
I think that some of the most exciting developments in human evolution are in the realm of new and creative approaches to harnessing energy. Certainly, our dependence on fossil fuels – coal and petroleum – has done such damage to the environment of the planet that the sustainability of human life is uncertain. The new Pope Francis has taken the issue to heart saying “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics.”
However, it may be that human ingenuity will yet come to our rescue.
I love trees !! So this unique approach to harvesting wind energy being developed by NewWind of France is reaching right down deeply into my environmentalist heart. Each tree like structure includes a hundred mini-windmills. I suspect that such trees will pose far less risk to birds than the gargantuan windmills that make up the wind farms.
Due to the light construction of the “leaves,” the Wind Tree generates power at wind speeds as low as 4.4 miles per hour! This translates into sustained operation times (an average of 320 days a year) that are almost double those of standard windmills that need higher wind speeds in order to produce electricity. Total output for the tree is about 3.1 kiloWatts. This is substantially below standard windmills, but they can’t operate on as many days due to higher wind thresholds.
The Wind Tree is made entirely of steel and, according to the manufacturer, it is completely silent while running. Each tree is about 36 feet tall and 26 feet wide, allowing it to reach above low obstacles like buildings and other smaller trees and have uninterrupted access to breezes at that level. They can either be plugged in to the public grid or used to power an individual building or complex.
Each tree costs about $36,500, but the payback will be fast. “Planting” them in “groves” may be the key to making the model work most cost effectively. NewWind is planning a test this March, with several units being installed in Paris.
Harnessing wind power really isn’t a new idea. The first grinding of grain harnessing wind power may have developed in Persia. Evidence of windmills in England dates from the 12th century. Wind was not the first non-human power source applied to the task of grinding corn – it was preceded by both animal power, and in all probability by water power. And of course, the Dutch are famous for employing their own unique style of windmill to pump water.
Our family unexpectedly discovered the Shattuck Windmill Museum and Park while traveling through Oklahoma to share Thanksgiving Dinner with family. This little museum was established in 1994 by a gathering of old windmillers. By January 2013 there were 62 diverse examples of windmills standing in the park with no two exactly alike. Beyond displaying these historic structures the park also shows visitors how homesteaders lived and why the windmill was so important to their survival. The park is located at the junction of US Highway 283 and OK State Highway 15.
Wind is the movement of air from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. In fact, wind exists because the sun unevenly heats the surface of the Earth. As hot air rises, cooler air moves in to fill the void. As long as the sun shines, the wind will blow. And as long as the wind blows, people will harness it to power their lives.
Wind is a clean source of renewable energy that produces no air or water pollution. And since the wind is free, operational costs are nearly zero once a turbine is erected. Mass production and technology advances are making turbines cheaper, and many governments offer tax incentives to spur wind-energy development.
Some people think wind turbines are ugly and complain about the noise the machines make. The slowly rotating blades can also kill birds and bats, but not nearly as many as cars, power lines, and high-rise buildings do. The wind is also variable: If it’s not blowing, there’s no electricity generated.
During our travels of the blue highways of the back roads we encountered the biggest wind farm we had ever seen in Texas. It turned out to be a project promoted by T Boone Pickens. He bought 500 turbines from GE to build the farm. But then the recession hit hard in late 2008, the Texas wind farm struggled to get the proper transmission lines permitted, and natural gas started on its downward spiral in price, making clean power less attractive to investors.
I’m not complaining about the incredibly low gas prices we are all experiencing currently in the United States. Some of that is driven by excess supply generated by the fracking boom and I suspect some of this has to do with geopolitics influenced by both the Middle East and Russia but I wonder if humanity is being short-sighted about the long-term costs. A General Accounting Office report noted that “shale oil and gas development poses risks to air quality, generally as the result of (1) engine exhaust from increased truck traffic, (2) emissions from diesel-powered pumps used to power equipment, (3) gas that is flared (burned) or vented (released directly into the atmosphere) for operational reasons, and (4) unintentional emissions of pollutants from faulty equipment or impoundment-temporary storage areas”.
But back to novel approaches to harnessing wind energy, how about the winds that blazing-fast trains create (and mechanical forces and energy beyond that including the heat of stations, train car interiors and even the sweat of passengers) ? Around the world, small-scale projects are starting to find innovative ways to harness all this energy. Passengers waiting for a train on the platform are accustomed to the whoosh of wind when their train arrives. Making use of China’s high-speed rail network, designers Jiang Qian and Alessandro Leonetti Luparini have created a prototype of a small power generator called the T-box to make use of those gusts.
Knowing that all “good” things (a relative term if ever there was one) pass, I remain optimistic about human creativity and all of the ways that humanity is going to find to access energy that we never considered as a resource and have either been wasting the potential of or failing to harness the presence of – like wind which is as constant as the sun shining somewhere on this planet every minute of every day.
~ Information Resources
Pope Francis’s edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/27/pope-francis-edict-climate-change-us-rightwing
History of Windmills – http://www.windmillworld.com/windmills/history.htm
Shattuck Windmill Museum – http://www.shattuckwindmillmuseum.org/
Wind Power Information – http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/wind-power-profile/
T Boone’s wind farm plans finally blow away – https://gigaom.com/2012/10/15/t-boones-wind-farm-plans-finally-blow-away/
How Has Fracking Changed Our Future ? – http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/energy/great-energy-challenge/big-energy-question/how-has-fracking-changed-our-future/
6 Ways to Harness the Wasted Energy of Trains (and Their Passengers) – http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/efficiency/6-ways-to-harness-wasted-transit-energy#slide-5
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
What happened to all those promises that fracking was going to bring down polyethylene prices (they have risen significantly of late) and facilitate the re-shoring of manufacturing (where are the jobs) ? This statement is not to minimize my own deep concerns and reservations about the practice of fracking at all. These concerns are significant and serious. Should we build more nuclear reactors on the coast of our oceans in earthquake prone regions ? Anyone want to suggest that as the solution to all of our economic challenges at this point ? I doubt it. At least I would not even consider making such a suggestion.
Susan Freinkel in a article asks “Looking for another reason to worry about fracking? We’re going to bubble-wrap the entire planet with the overabundance of plastic it produces.” She notes that “weaning ourselves from the presence of throwaway plastics in our everyday lives may soon be harder than it’s ever been—thanks to the recent boom in shale gas, of all things”. She shares that “According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, new developments in drilling and extraction technology have opened the door for the capture of more than 2,000 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas—enough to take us, at current rates of consumption, into the 22nd century.”
Freinkel writes that – “Natural gas contains many of the vital raw materials that are used to manufacture plastics and chemicals. The new tide of cheap natural gas has launched the petrochemical industry on the biggest building spree it has seen in many years, with many experts predicting enormous increases in production of those plastics most often used in consumer packaging and single-use products.”
“This is the first time in more than a decade we’ve been able to talk about building facilities [and] increasing capacity,” says Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics department of the American Chemistry Council, which her article goes on to share “represents many of the world’s biggest producers of raw plastics and recently produced a report analyzing the impact of the shale gas boom. To date, companies under its aegis have announced plans to spend more than $100 billion by 2020 to build new facilities or expand existing ones.”
“Most of the proposed projects are focused on extracting ethylene from the ethane contained in natural gas. Ethylene is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world—a key raw material for ammonia, antifreeze, vinyl, and rubber. But more than anything else it’s used to make polyethylene: the plastic found in toys and diapers, plastic bags and bubble wrap, milk jugs and squeeze bottles. It’s the chief plastic found in most consumer packaging. Not surprisingly, it’s also the type of plastic most often found floating in ocean garbage patches, thousands of miles from land.” Recycled polyethylene is also the material that our Origins panel product is made of.
With the growth in fracking, any “industry interest in developing greener, biobased plastics has dimmed. When oil and gas prices were higher, the major petrochemical companies were all busy exploring ways to make plastics from renewable feedstocks, such as corn, sugar cane, and sugar beets, as well as from non-food plants (such as algae).” “Anecdotally, that does seem a little off the front burner, compared to where it was,” says Don Loepp, editor of Plastics News.
The United Nations Climate Summit took place in New York City last week. The leaders used the one-day summit to announce plans by governments, investors and financial institutions to mobilize more than $200 billion to finance clean energy and support resilience among vulnerable nations. Several other U.N. initiatives were announced including efforts to reduce methane, a harmful greenhouse gas as well as plans to invest in cleaner transportation and a pledge to end deforestation by 2030. In advance of the summit, there were climate marches in New York City (upwards of 300,000) and other locations around the globe.
“What we can achieve through this conference is to forge a new model of development for the world,” French President François Hollande said. “There will have to be a new pricing system for carbon which will have to serve as a signal for the way we use it. We have to bring into play what finance has in terms of imagination and shift it to serve the good of planet. We need to define a new economy for the world.” France will be the host country for next year’s summit.
A surprising and encouraging statement came from Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund – “John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum. We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.” Also encouraging is the stampede of institutional investors who are committing to expediently decarbonize and measure and disclose the carbon footprint of assets under management. Those making the commitment include foundations, individuals, faith groups, health care organizations, cities and universities around the world.
There is HOPE. Somewhere between such conflicting desires as rapidly growing economies with an appetite for more consumer goods (in India plastic consumption had already been forecast to double over the next five years) and the truly scary sides of climate change gobbling up the coasts where much of the planet’s population currently resides (and are certain to find themselves pushed to migrate even if the planet can keep the rise in global temperatures to no more that 2 degrees C by the target date established at the climate summit) is a balance that equals sustainability. I believe such a balance is possible to achieve even in the context of improving the quality of life for people all over the planet. I hope my optimistic perspective proves out. In the meantime, I do my part and try to remember patience, for even though the need seems quite urgent in reality, such changes in human nature tend to evolve slowly.
“Wrap Party” by Susan Freinkel at OnEarth.org posted 04/28/14 – http://www.onearth.org/articles/2014/04/why-the-plastics-industry-is-raucously-celebrating-the-fracking-boom
“Climate summit kicks off with promises of $200 billion for clean energy” by Michael Casey at Fortune.com posted 09/23/14 – http://fortune.com/tag/new-energy/
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer