Consumer Energy Report is now Energy Trends Insider -- Read More »

By Robert Rapier on Feb 17, 2015 with 29 responses

The Growing Risk of Transporting Crude Oil by Rail

By now you have probably heard that a CSX (NYSE: CSX) train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota’s shale oil fields derailed and caught fire. The oil was bound for a coastal oil shipping depot owned by the midstream Master Limited Partnership Plains All American Pipelines (NYSE: PAA) in Yorktown, Virginia. While the cause is still under investigation, the train was carrying 109 tankers of crude oil. 26 of the cars left the tracks, and several caught fire. Some reportedly ended up in a tributary of the Kanawha River.

Fortunately, there were no casualties from the accident, but one thing is certain: There will be more incidents like this, and it’s a matter of time before another incident like this happens in a more populated area. While there are safeguards in place to minimize the risks when these trains have to go through towns, the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that claimed 47 lives emphasizes the risks of transporting flammable liquids.

Following the incident, someone asked me “Why do we transport something so dangerous via rail?” That’s a good question. Why do we do it?

It’s really very simple. Most of the country’s transportation system is based on oil. The production and sale of oil in the U.S. is a legal activity, and oil producers look to get the highest possible price for their product. Given that much of the nation’s refining infrastructure and demand is in coastal locations, and most of our oil production is not, in order for supplies in mid-continent regions like the Bakken Formation in North Dakota to reach the demand centers it must be transported.

An oil producer in North Dakota who could only sell oil locally for $40 per barrel (bbl) might obtain $60/bbl on the East Coast. Thus, as long as the local price plus the cost of transport is less than the price at the destination, the producer is going to want to ship the oil.

The preferred method of shipping crude oil, from a safety and cost perspective, is via pipeline. Pipeline transport also has a lower carbon footprint than shipping by rail. North America has an enormous underground network of oil and gas pipelines. In the U.S. alone there are 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines — 53 times the length of the 47,000 miles in the US Interstate Highway System. Below is a partial map of just the largest pipelines that crisscross North America.


Major North American Oil, Gas, and Product Pipelines. Source: Theodora

It’s usually a bit cheaper to ship by pipeline. A 2013 investor presentation from the oil refiner Valero (NYSE: VLO) indicated that the company can ship Bakken crude by rail to the West Cost for $9/bbl, to the East Coast for $15/bbl, or to the Gulf Coast for $12/bbl. Pipeline routes are not available from the Bakken to all of those destinations (although the pipeline infrastructure is being expanded), but a rough approximation is that shipping by pipeline is ~$5/bbl cheaper than shipping by rail. The shipping distance is obviously a factor, but the point is that shipping by rail is not prohibitively expensive compared to pipelines.

Over the past few years as oil production continued to expand in places like the Bakken, there was downward pressure on oil prices. Meanwhile, global crude oil demand continued to grow, and crude oil production outside the U.S. was relatively flat. While U.S. crude oil production rose by 3.2 million bpd between 2008 and 2013, global production outside the U.S. only rose by 0.5 million bpd during that time. As a result, there was upward pressure on the price of crude oil that could be sold internationally, and downward pressure on crude oil in the continental U.S. This opened up a price differential that provided an incentive to ship Bakken crude to the coasts. As a result, shipments by rail skyrocketed:


There are a number of studies that show that shipping by rail is more dangerous than shipping by pipeline. In fact, a year ago the U.S. State Department did an analysis that projected that if oil is shipped via the (politically-delayed) Keystone XL pipeline, there will be 6 fewer deaths per year than if that same oil is shipped by rail. The environmental activists who work to block pipelines will dispute this, because they believe that blocking pipelines is an effective way to slow down the development of crude oil reserves. Their argument would be “There won’t be 6 additional deaths per year, because that oil will not take the rail instead.” I think this is a naive view, and is contradicted by actual observations.

So, where is all of the new oil-by-rail traffic? The Wall Street Journal published a nice graphic detailing these routes:


The greatest increase in traffic has come from that Bakken to East Coast “virtual pipeline.” Warren Buffet’s BNSF Railroad, incidentally, is the biggest player in moving oil out of the Bakken region. The red line in the map above likely represents the highest risk for future accidents given the number of crude oil trains traversing that route. In my view the only things that will slow the oil-by-rail trend are if either 1). The price of oil drops so low that it makes development uneconomical; or 2). The price differential between the source and the destination vanishes. These are issues related to demand. If demand is there, the oil will flow. Just look at the war on drugs to gauge the effectiveness of trying to cut off supplies in the fact of strong demand.

But back to the question of why we ship oil by rail. The reason is that consumers demand oil, and that drives the price higher. Where consumers are willing to pay, the oil is going to get to market one way or the other. In this case, insufficient pipeline infrastructure out of the Bakken is the major driver of the oil to rail development, but blocking pipelines will have the same effect as long as the demand is there.

Everyone who uses oil is culpable to some extent for these sorts of incidents. People will shake their heads at this latest incident, but few will change their driving habits to use less oil. Until that happens on a large scale, the oil will keep moving, perhaps right through your home town.

Link to Original Article: The Growing Risk of Transporting Crude Oil by Rail

(Follow Robert Rapier on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.)

  1. By Russ Finley on February 18, 2015 at 1:00 am

    Informative article. Just today I drove past about half a mile of tankers heading for a terminal in my state and was thinking how much safer a pipeline would be. Railroads tend to follow streams and rivers because they have gentle grades and cut through hills and mountains. That is why derailments often end up as ecological disasters. What it means to be an environmentalist seems to have been lost somewhere along the line.

    • By Tom G. on February 18, 2015 at 11:12 am


      Aren’t those aircraft bodies? However I do get your point.

    • By GreenEngineer on February 19, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      We can pay the costs of our fossil fuel use now, or we can push the cost off onto future generations. A pipeline is an effective way of doing that. I personally would rather live with the costs now, however ugly they may be, in the certain knowledge that pushing the problem off into the future will make it much worse.

      Essentially all of our environmental problems arise from unmanaged externalized costs. The choice between pipelines and train shipping is basically a choice about whether to externalize those costs to the present, or to the future. Both situations are a moral tragedy of the highest order, but one that we as a society have chosen to embrace. The difference is that ugly current costs can motivate change (especially if they are borne by the middle class). Hidden future costs never will.

      • By Russ Finley on February 26, 2015 at 11:26 pm

        Tar sands oil should be left in the ground. If we environmentalists can’t achieve that, then maybe we should look harder for battles we can win.

        My translation of what you said above is that the strategy is to delay or stop the pipeline so that oil has to be moved by rail. Burning train cars and oil slicks in rivers are news worthy incidents that can be used for anti-oil propaganda. Although the impact of the oil sands alone is not meaningful, the hope is to fan this campaign into a more successful one that might actually lead to a meaningful impact.

        Fine, whatever, but human history is largely the documentation of what happens when a given group tests a hypothesis on society. The strategy is just as likely to backfire. The fact that 40 thousand people die in oil powered cars every year certainly doesn’t reduce demand.

        Considering that the oil gets burned whether it is piped or railed, I for one resent the very real pollution of our rivers and destruction by tanker fire of towns and infrastructure to test the hypothesis that burning trains will move society away from fossil fuels.

        History repeats itself because human nature never changes.

        • By GreenEngineer on February 27, 2015 at 4:20 pm

          My translation of what you said above is that the strategy is to delay or stop the pipeline so that oil has to be moved by rail.

          Not exactly, though I can see why you interpret it that way.

          I think the main value of the anti-pipeline movement is the building of coalitions and activist power centers. David Roberts at Grist has written extensively about this. The actual pipeline is secondary to what else these groups may be able to accomplish next (such as shutting down tar sands production).

          Insofar as opposing the pipeline accomplishes that, I think it does so by making it less economical to move the oil. Avoiding the pipeline also avoids making a huge sunk-cost investment, of the sort which tend to become self-justifying after the fact (i.e. sources that would not otherwise be economical become economical because pipeline shipping is cheaper and it helps defray the investment).

          My point is more of a dismissal of the argument that we should build the pipeline to protect people (or even to protect the environment). Building the pipeline invites continuation of practices that are doing far more violence to people and the environment than all the train car spills it might avoid – it’s just that that violence is less visible. That, in my mind, nullifies that particular argument for the pipeline. Other arguments against the pipeline then become more telling.

          • By Russ Finley on March 2, 2015 at 9:57 pm

            All good points. Luckily, in an open, more or less democratic society progressive ideas are slowed by resistance from conservatives (and vice versa), which has the beneficial effect of preventing the not so great ideas from being implemented. The road to hell and all that.

            If the pipeline does not get built but the oil gets burned anyway, I think the movement will have a serious credibility problem on their hands.

            “You not only hurt our economy but now the oil moves by ocean tanker endangering our coastlines, and it all gets burned anyway. Thanks a lot” ; )

          • By Optimist on March 4, 2015 at 11:33 am

            With all due respect to the Environmentalist Movement (Religion?): they won’t stop tar sands. $50/bbl would stop tar sands. But to keep the price that low would require less global demand. Good luck convincing the whole world to use less (Asia is where all the growth is happening), considering the fine example we in the West (include all those dedicated greens) are setting…

            As for the coalition angle: they’re all unbalanced. In theory that limits the damage they can do. In practice some others have been oddly influential of late, including but not limited to the NRA, the Tea party and government employee unions.

  2. By Forrest on February 18, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Another danger of rail transport. A closed container with air jostles about mechanically stirring the crude and results in spectrum of heavy to light compounds and gas. The most flammable mixing with air. Looking and reading of Enbridge expansion of pipeline network, some of which goes through Michigan and Great Lakes. These pipelines go through city of Superior and Dulth on way to the Dakota’s. It looks to me the biggest problem, they are to small in capacity. No wonder all the legal trade and Environmental activism going about in Michigan with sights on Enbride. They reported desire to damage pipeline construction per the newly invented demand that, these companies carry exorbitant liability funds and insurance in event of spill with the fund accessed by mediator that can hand out to damaged parties. They cite the horrible, horrible cost of pipeline spill to Kalamazoo River. The magnitude of this disaster was greatly hyped. The horrific damage residing in the minds of petrol haters or those with hands out. I live close to the area. Per my contacts within the damaged area and personal evaluation of visual, and hype. The news coverage sensational and images repeated at least 1,000x. A couple waterfowl with animal activist wiping oil off the little critter was akin to the famous corpse floating about New Orleans disaster. Seems all the folks on the left went bonkers and unhinged with outrage and demands of EPA to inflict max remedy. The cleanup did more damage than the original spill. You would have thought this area was contaminated with nuclear fallout. Government employs controlled access, information, and images in Gestapo fashion. Nothing but propaganda and delay to pump up problem and extol maximum penalties and bad reputation. This arm of government full of activist with agenda. Forever meeting with public that cried and walling of emotional turmoil and fear of future. Out side the media and emotional activist zone, not much different, even on the river. The original company cleanup was a quick responsive. They should have stopped there. Better to negotiate with company to put in place environmental improvement projects. Instead they made them dredge up even the ambient ppm trace oil deposits deep in river shed. This the true damage. I would rather have the company create more wetland, spawning shallows, woodland planting, and marsh land.

    • By Forrest on February 18, 2015 at 7:39 am

      Also, we must acknowledge the cronyism factor. Financial titians are not the financial geniuses we often attribute them to be and luck is not really valid reason for their wealth. I believe and Warren himself claimed his success was per ability to evaluate human character and traits in which investments followed upon CEO evaluation. I think his wealth more attributed to his innate personal influence upon the crowd that make his job easier. First, you must realize his success breeds more of the same as the intoxicant draws those with power to make it continue draw near. So, he has attracted a growing mass of influence of well wishers. His personality of humble servant is not disarming. He is not loud or crass and doesn’t go about like royalty. The political crowd can hob nob with him without losing face. Warren, knows how to stoke the ego’s of the political class and makes strategic investments such as within environmental groups. Same with political contributions that gain him favored status. He knows how to manipulate media per talk of secretary tax rate verses his own. While one scratches head on this action, it’s easy to see his self sacrifice is merely an attempt to gain inner circle influence and avoid the cross hairs often leveled on rich. His actions and antics of recent wealth of railroad investment reminds me of Standard Oil concern of sober society within Prohibition. Warren reports to media that global warming concerns and benefit of efficient rail transport his motivation per saving the planet. Meanwhile he utilized crony politics to thwart even more efficient pipeline transport.

  3. By Forrest on February 19, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Processing gasoline must not be without risk as well. The SoCalf refinery blast a few hours ago is expected to spike fuel prices across country. A few years back another explosion at same refinery resulted in 20-40% price spike. Sad, but investors glee at the reality of when oil producers screw up their profit margins soar. This abnormality only exists in inelastic demand supplies and within very limited supplier market. So, how can opponents of biofuel argue with economist evaluations of the value of competition and alternative fuel status of E85? Even the dampening effect with 10% blend that is produced in separate small business infrastructure. If only for benefit of consumers, biofuel production should be maximized, say nothing of the value per environment and job creation. Another sad fact, akin to damage inflicted by Environmentalist cleverness in obstructing pipeline construction and ensuing loss of life and damage to environment. Regulators are holding refinery’s hostage per cleverness to make simple less expensive improvement illegal unless inflicting huge cost of updating entire processing plant to the latest tremendous costly regs. This example of government brilliance similar to homes that burn down in spite of low cost improvement of electrical as homeowners can’t afford entire update to latest electric regulations.

  4. By ben on February 19, 2015 at 10:01 am

    The burden of Forrest’s logic on the reader is only eclipsed by that of his broken syntax. My goodness, his ramble is little short of, well, the aimless mental wanderings of a politician mouthing his favorite soundbite with little concern for its actual merit. Energy transport be damned, pump up the biofuels and the rest will dissolve to minor consequence is the thrust. Ah, like the country-western lyrics go: “It’s my story and I’m sticking to it..” remains such a weak mantra.

    The earliest Congressional hearings in the wake of the tragic accident in neighboring Lac Megantic, Quebec, appear little more than an emotional venting about the current state of affairs within the energy-freight transport industry. Despite some posturing about the need for systemic improvements to safety regulations (bearing on both procedures and equipment) too few substantive changes have been implemented since these hearings. Regrettably, it appears that a Exxon-Valdez-type accident may be needed to advance fundamental changes in the way we transport fossil fuels via freight rail. If that proves to be the case, we can simply blame ourselves for not demanding a range of sensible, incremental improvements to a critically important component of our energy delivery infrastructure.

    The ongoing debate about the Keystone XL Pipeline really begs the question about what we might do to enhance our ability to move product from point of production to point of use. We would do well to devote a portion of this emotional energy to an objective assessment of which investments hold the greatest promise of meeting the sustainability requirements of America’s economy and security posture for the immense challenges in the years ahead. We can do better–and we must.

    Ben G

  5. By GreenEngineer on February 19, 2015 at 2:27 pm


    You know that I appreciate your writing and your analysis, but I have to say that this is a particularly poor analogy.

    Just look at the war on drugs to gauge the effectiveness of trying to cut off supplies in the fact of strong demand.

    The most literal interpretation of your analogy is quite right: an outright ban on fossil fuel use would never, ever work. But we all know that. And beyond that literal reading, the analogy breaks down.

    Our drug policies in this country have ranged from zero tolerance to no-really-absolutely-zero-tolerance. We treat users like addicts, and then either treat them like they are sick, or like they are bad. We have never attempted to manage recreational drug use (aside from a few needle programs) in a way that is designed to minimize harm or encourage users to voluntarily transition to less-harmful drugs or get off drugs entirely. (My understanding is that some European countries do take this approach, but I’m not an expert.)

    Efforts to obstruct the development of fossil fuel resources are not the first step in some plan to prohibit them altogether. They are an effort (albeit a clumsy one, but we use the tools we have) to increase the structural price of fossil fuels to more accurately reflect their costs and to discourage the growth of their use.

    Energy use is famously inelastic in the short term, but it doesrespond to price signals in the long term. American car buying habits really do respond to the immediate price of gas (with unfortunately no apparent awareness of the likely long-term trajectory of that price). I know from my own work that many (most) energy decisions on both the supply and demand side boil down to cost-benefit analyses. As the cost goes up, the options for alternatives go up. As the cost goes down, those options shrink because the owner doesn’t want to hear about something that is going to cost more in the long term (and to hell with their children, I guess).

    Yes, it’s true that shipping oil by rail is more failure-prone than by pipeline, and will probably lead to more deaths and damage on a per barrel basis than a pipeline would. To that I have three responses:

    1) People do make purchasing decisions in response to price signals, and those decisions do have an aggregate impact on our energy (oil) use. You yourself have seen the statistics for this in the last decade, so I’m surprised that you claim that increasing the cost does not reduce the consumption. In America, at least, the cost of oil impacts both vehicle purchases and miles traveled.
    This suggests that making the shipping easier/cheaper will increase the demand, and lead to more oil being produced and shipped than would otherwise be the case.

    2) A pipeline is a very large investment. Large investments encourage their use, even at a marginal loss, in order to defray the cost of the investment. Rail shipping is very flexible, and there is no incentive to ship even one barrel of oil by rail at a loss (at least, not based on the transport mechanism). Whereas with pipeline (much like with the metaphorical “pipeline” of development at the oil patch) there is a high up-front cost which encourages users to (a) keep using the resource even when the marginal benefit is slightly negative and (b) encourage demand growth in order to justify the original investment.

    3) The true long-term cost and harm of fossil fuel use, however it is transported, is orders of magnitude higher than the differential in cost or harm based on different ways to get the fuel to market. The difference is that the damage done by train derailments is very visible, while the damage done by fracking, mining, and carbon production is largely invisible, because it is largely going to be paid by future generations. I feel bad for the people who die or lose their homes to oil shipping accidents. I am much more concerned, ethically, about the systematic destruction of the prosperity of future generations which will affect many more people, almost all of them entirely innocent (in the sense that they did not themselves get any benefit from the fuel use, or have any choice in the matter at all).
    To put it more bluntly: we as a society are engaged in a huge blow-out carbon party that gives us a very high (material) standard of living at the cost of impoverishing the future. We have developed complex mechanisms to hide the true costs of our activities from ourselves. In that context, it is irresponsible and immoral to support a policy choice which further acts to hide those costs or push them into the future (which amounts to the same thing).

    Pipelines will serve to reduce the short-term financial cost of our fossil fuel use, but (like most such things) they do so by increasing the costs paid by future generations.

    • By Forrest on February 19, 2015 at 5:22 pm

      Your economics analysis sound, but harsh. Would you, also, push to remove safety equipment from cars as more deaths on the highway good to slow down the progression of fossil fuel? Do away with CAFE standards hoping lower mileage will cost the consumer more. I think it’s better for nation and citizenry if we make intelligent decisions to increase efficiency and lesson harm of fossil fuel and focus more on alternatives. Your negative evaluation per warfare tactics like Sherman burning the South to quell motivation is destructive to the nations economic engine in which you rely on to pay the bill for change. Unless your one of those environmentalist that get excited to push economies off the cliff and go back to yesteryear of foraging for food.

      • By GreenEngineer on February 19, 2015 at 8:29 pm

        Unless your one of those environmentalist that get excited to push economies off the cliff and go back to yesteryear of foraging for food.

        No, not at all. I am a humanist who is watching the last 500 years of human progress be destroyed by greed and chosen blindness. What I say may be harsh, but not nearly so harsh as the future we are making for our grandchildren (or their likely judgement of us, if they can spare the time to think of such things).

        Your analogy to safety equipment isn’t quite accurate to my example, since I am talking about an action which directly exacerbates the problem, not one of the incidental associated costs. But in any case that’s not the point: CAFE exists (and is a good thing, part of the transition to solution). Safety standards exist. Keystone does not. It’s much easier to prevent something from being built than to get rid of it once it exists.

    • By Robert Rapier on February 19, 2015 at 5:35 pm

      But in the war on drugs, there have been many attempts to cut the supply lines. What happens? Everything under the sun to get the drugs to market. Tunnels are dug underneath the border. Drones and small planes fly them across. You have a product that is in demand, and it is going to get to market. Does it make the price higher? Maybe a little, but as legalized marijuana in Colorado shows the price is whatever the market will bear. Legalized pot didn’t result in cheap pot. So I still think the analogy is apt: Cutting supply lines won’t work when demand is there, because the product will just find another way to market.

      So what’s the issue? That possibly by preventing a new pipeline, the incremental cost of oil will go up and people will use less. Now, I ask you to do some math. Make some assumptions, estimate how much demand will fall, and then translate that into associated carbon emissions, and then even more importantly an expected impact on the temperature long-term. I can save you the trouble and tell you that the temperature change would be indistinguishable from zero. Then we have increased risks in transporting crude in the naïve view that this somehow has a measurable impact on climate at some point, but statistics tell us more people are going to die as a result.

      Hey, I would be on board if I believed that stopping a pipeline would really have a climate impact (or would do much to speed up a transition to cleaner energy). But I have run the numbers. I don’t believe it will have any measurable impact at all. On the other hand, I do believe we are going to see more derailments and more associated deaths. Those are measurable impacts.

      Here is a question I sometimes ask people who protest against projects like the Keystone XL. Which oil projects would you approve? None? Of course if we don’t do any, then in a decade oil production will be about half what it is today. Unless you believe we can replace that sort of decline with a combination of clean energy and conservation, then you have to be willing to develop some projects. Sometimes I think protesters feel they have the luxury of protesting against any and every project they can, when the reality is if they got their way society might very well collapse.

      • By GreenEngineer on February 19, 2015 at 8:43 pm

        Legalized pot didn’t result in cheap pot. So I still think the analogy is apt: Cutting supply lines won’t work when demand is there, because the product will just find another way to market.

        You are misunderstanding the economics of the pot market. The legal pot is kept intentionally reasonably close to the street price. In the case of medical pot, if it’s lower, people will buy at the dispensary and sell to the street (since there is a barrier to dispensary access). If the dispensary is more expensive, people will buy from the street and not go to the dispensary at all. With purely recreational use (CO and WA), the price is kept high (but not too high) via taxes and fees, which support local governments.

        I actually think the pot analogy is a pretty good one for what I am talking about: NOT cutting off supply, but raising the price artificially. That’s essentially what’s happening with pot (although it’s going from illegal to restricted, whereas oil is legal). In the context of oil, I’d rather see the price be raised by e.g. carbon taxes but the right wing has effectively made that not only impossible, but non-discussable.

        Hey, I would be on board if I believed that stopping a pipeline would really have a climate impact (or would do much to speed up a transition to cleaner energy). But I have run the numbers. I don’t believe it will have any measurable impact at all.

        I believe you. And I agree with you in terms of direct climate impacts. (In terms of direct climate impacts, nothing matters but coal.) But in terms of the momentum our culture has around its approach to energy, I disagree, and I don’t think you can “run the numbers” on this because there are too many social and cultural factors involved.

        The defeat of Keystone (if it happens) will not matter if it happens in isolation. But it can also be part of a pattern of choosing to move away from fossil fuels, a step in a process. I can’t promise that will be the outcome. But I can promise that just letting it happen will move us in the opposite direction.

        On the other hand, I do believe we are going to see more derailments and more associated deaths. Those are measurable impacts.

        Yes, we will. And those deaths will be inherently tied in the public’s mind to the development and use of oil. (Yes, it’s harsh. But not nearly as harsh as what we are doing to our children.)

        Which oil projects would you approve? None?

        That’s the wrong question. I would tax the hell out of carbon, and then there would be fewer projects undertaken. Unfortunately, political dysfunction has taken that tool out of our toolbox.
        Absent the ability to address the problem correctly, I would approve those projects which do the least aggregate damage and approve few enough of them to drive the price up enough to create the necessary economic incentives.

    • By ben on February 20, 2015 at 10:08 am

      I’m sympathetic with your arguments, but I believe the last line of your post speaks to the cleavage between pragmatists and ideologues: “…..when the reality is if they got their way society might very well collapse.” Yes, that is very much the rub.
      There is a growing element in society (at home and abroad) that embraces a view that the collapse of today’s socioeconomic and, in a fundamental sense, political arrangements needs to occur in order to usher in a new (post-carbon) era of life with all its (presumably) attendant benefits. And while such a vision surely invites an emotional impulse for many to nostalgically long for the simpler life, the unvarnished truth is that the good ole days surely held many problems their own.
      Since the advent of America’s post-War ascent to unprecedented affluence and, as some might suggest, economic/political hegemony, their has been an increasing temptation to see consumerism, and the economic growth that it necessarily spawns, as the root-cause of our ailments across a whole spectrum of contemporary challenges. Sort of the holy grail of such a philosophic view was captured in the publication of Limits to Growth (I had the pleasure of knowing the principal author from days spent in the rural hills of Vermont) and much of what seemed to follow (sociologically) in trail.
      The 70′s were a restive time with a good deal of heartfelt, if somewhat misdirected, yearning for a doubling-down on the social progress experiences of the 60′s. If hindsight does offer the advantages of seeing 20/20, we are eventually coming to a point where we understand that wishful thinking is hardly the stuff of which true sustainability is actually built. Very much to the contrary, sustainability squarely rests on a rational assessment of what is feasible given the convergence of hard-fought gains in human understanding with the abundant (but not unlimited) resources with which we are blessed.
      Four decades after Limits to Growth, we continue to debate not only the limits of economic output, but to question the actual utility of growth itself. This foundational shift in social assumptions, call it a paradigm if you must, constitutes a Maginot Line of sorts for “believers” of the faith. And like all faiths, it requires a degree of metaphysical leaping to bridge the gap between “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.”
      In the coming days, we will do well to keep on hoping for positive signs of verifiable and sustainable progress even as we confess that the very nature of progress itself is subject to that old saw about the quality of the music generally reflects “whose child is playing the piano.”
      Thanks for dependably striving to encourage critical ears rather than simply perpetuating emotional bias.

      Ben G

      • By GreenEngineer on February 20, 2015 at 12:13 pm

        I’m sympathetic with your arguments, but I believe the last line of your post speaks to the cleavage between pragmatists and ideologues: “…..when the reality is if they got their way society might very well collapse.” Yes, that is very much the rub.

        As if there is any chance of that happening any time soon. If society collapses, it will be from its own internal contradictions, not because the environmental movement suddenly enjoyed a surge of political success after decades of effective stagnation.

        There are, no question, people who think that social collapse is a goal worth seeking. I am not one of them. Only young men and fools think that order rises spontaneously from anarchy – much less a better order than the one which preceded it.

        That said:
        1) Human society is subject to the laws of ecology, just like every other living thing. And the laws of ecology apply to human society just like all other natural laws apply to human society. Physical law does not make exceptions for us, and it does not care about us.
        2) You can’t have infinite growth in a finite system.
        3) You can’t live by looting the system you live in, or by soiling your nest, over the long term.

        These facts mean that we are between a rock and a hard place. If we continue as we are human civilization will fail and democratic, liberal societies – which require a certain degree of material surplus to exist stably – will fail first. This means that all of our futures, or more relevantly our children’s futures, are under threat from the continuation of business as usual.

        So really, the question is “do we undertake some scary/risky/status-quo-disrupting changes now, or do we facilitate the certain destruction of our children’s prospects by doing nothing?”

        By framing it the way you did (or more accurately, but embracing RR’s framing of the question) he and you are engaging in a false dichotomy. It is not a choice between business as usual vs. the probable failure of civilization. It is a choice between business as usual and the failure of civilization, vs. the risk of trying something else. It’s not a comfortable choice, but it’s one that will keep getting both starker and harder to make, the longer we wait.

  6. By Forrest on February 20, 2015 at 7:15 am

    Drug trade analogy aside, all agree with RR that obstructing the XL pipeline merely increase accident rate, increases pollution, and hurts both American economies. It does serve the purpose to rally support among the petrol haters and keeps the discussion on the topic on front page news. Those whom gain power from pubic support are very weak kneed to call out such antics as wrong headed as general public thinks Environmentalist have humble motives and without agendas. I question their agenda, as the science of predicting CO2 damage to globe is weak, merely speculation. Yet, these activist claim we will destroy civilization and generations to come. The rhetoric would lead one to believe no other priority upon mankind than to stop fossil fuel use. Well, to match the chilling rhetoric call to arms, why is the battle so political? Why do these folks continually berate the Right? Why does the Left inflame partisan politics and throw so much ad hominem insults that only result in division and undermine cooperative efforts? Why does Pelosi, Obama, and Reid waste power and pivot to ram social medicine down throat of public, when they could have solved global warming? If this GW problem were accepted as reality within the ranks of the Left, does anyone think (even if the Right were not so motivated) the Left could easily negotiate their cherished institutions and gain maximum regulation for GW fight? No, they would never do any of the above, hence they are phony.

  7. By Forrest on February 20, 2015 at 7:58 am

    I do see an apt analogy within the pot trade. I’ve noticed proponents of the drug often haters of petrol and coal and many think our capitalist system is responsible for the evils of world of which the Right support. This group tends to socialize with the same thinking groups and enjoy the reverberations of their unchallenged ideas and wisdom. It’s a no compromise zone in which their talents to understand true evil need to be acted upon by any means possible. The hype of benefits of pot extreme as the benefits of wind energy. One sitting on the outside of the inner circle unable to balance evils of tobacco smoke with benefits of pot smoke? The recent medical news of 5x mental disorders within pot smokers. The learning disabilities afflicted within the practice. The ability of illegal drugs as foundation to almost all crime and human suffering and the need to make another intoxicant readily available and this will be a good thing for humanity? Legalizing the substance is in effect putting the drug on approved list per society. It will always increase the consumption and just like alcohol inflict much human suffering. So, I don’t believe this group has nations best interest or can be trusted to do honest evaluations. On top of that they have no ability to compromise or change ideals.

  8. By rockyredneck on February 21, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    Those pipelines sound pretty terrible, dangerous, dirty and all, but I have
    another peeve or two.

    I really don’t like the idea of highways or dusty roads near my home.
    they are noisy, stinky and deadly to animals birds and insects. They
    are also responsible for lots of GHG emissions. Perhaps we could
    plant trees there instead. We could walk from place to place in the

    Then there are those noisy railroads. Deadly to animals and humans alike
    when crossed. When they have an accident, like Lac-Mégantic,
    it is pretty spectacular. Another place to plant trees. We could sit
    on our porch swings, with beer in hand, and watch the mule trains go

    And who could like those noisy airlines that are spewing their toxic
    aerosols into the atmosphere over our heads. We could feed a whole
    African village on the land used for just one airport.

    I have a few issues with those overhead transmission lines too. Aren’t
    they frying our brains with those magnetic waves? Pretty darn
    unreliable too, what with big winds and ice storms. And you better
    not touch one.

    Oh, while we are at it, lets get rid of the ships as well. Then there
    would be no need for pipelines at all.

    Funny thing about pipelines, I can seldom tell where one is. Cows and
    wildlife are usually grazing peacefully above them and I can’t seem
    to hear them. Seem pretty safe to cross as well, except if you are
    digging too deep. Can’t seem to sniff one out either, even with the
    help of my hound.

    I do hear of an occasional accident and even rarely of injury. I think
    there was recently, a spill equal to about a truckload, in northern
    Alberta. Of course there were 600 accidents on Alberta highways one
    snowy day a few weeks back.

    I think there is good reason to get rid of the whole darn lot.

    But, just a minute, isn’t our entire lifestyle dependent on highways,
    railroads, airplanes and ships and of course pipelines? Heck no, we
    can carry our water in pails and use outhouses. We can use the trees
    we planted to heat our homes with wood.

    Who needs a lifestyle, or a job? After all, a 30 year old trailer in the
    bush is just fine by me, as long as there are a few rusty cars around
    to add a little interest and provide housing for the chickens. A job
    just cuts into my leisure time.

    Pass that pipe would you. Oh, and maybe a little of that Canadian whiskey as well. It’s not delivered by pipeline, is it? Hmm, maybe that’s not a bad idea.

    • By Forrest on February 21, 2015 at 6:18 pm

      You wouldn’t like the trailer in the woods. My mother had a Gentle Ben type guy attempt that life style. Guess he thought a good life style as you describe. He bought 40 acres unseen, mostly swamp land about a mile in the woods. He had to utilize our land and logging trails to drag the 20 ft camper trailer back. This was in the seventies. He had a hippie good looking wife. She didn’t last long. He was lazy and alcoholic. He let his dogs breed and run the deer. He would walk to town (18 miles) to party. He lived like so many on welfare. He was a nice bum and some got a kick out of him. Guess he didn’t plan on wood ticks, misquotes, gnats, and flies. Maybe social services started to give him a hard time? This area is not kind and lack compassion to the bum lifestyle. He lasted two years and left a mess for others to clean up. He was a big environmentalist and animal activist. He was a disaster to both, but he could convince strangers of his compassion and unselfish work.

      • By rockyredneck on February 22, 2015 at 10:01 am

        Sounds as if I lampooned your Gentle Ben pretty accurately. Reminds me of a lot of environmentalists and activists. They have lot’s of ideas for the rest of us. They rarely have reasonable alternatives for the establishments they wish to tear down.

  9. By Forrst on February 21, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    The Environmentalist mindset hasn’t changed much over the decades. Ran into this in long ago in college years. Took a Environment class in Wisconsin for elective, per my desire to achieve better conditions to such. All students bright eyed and motivated to solve pollution problems. Over the semester, this prof was able to crush all hope and ideas for improvement. We quickly learned our ideas useless as all roads directed to selfish man the villain and anywhere he trend, the purity of nature suffered. The only cure was for a Democratic take over and to usher in a new age whereupon a politburo of intelligentsia could direct society upon central control to minimize damage to environment. We elites could direct the lower class to utilize intoxicants, drugs, sex, rock and roll good times with excitement of ever higher debauchery and intense self awareness or intimacy to stimulate feelings, if only they don’t procreate or at least seek the services of family planning and take the bus. Religious understanding and values were to be condemned and ridiculed. The need to redefine family and magnify alternative lifestyle value that can’t procreate. Progressives will gladly take from the wealthy to pay for loafers to avoid work. Valentines day morphs from cute sayings of “I like U” to being titillated per sadism of 50 shades of grey while public figures gain popularity by conforming to value system of huba huba that looks like fun. You might ask what does this have to do with petrol? Petrol is the attractant to pull all of this nutty thinking to arms. The conspiracies, evil capitalists, environmental pollution, success, dependence, low cost, and value seems to send these bloats off the edge and unhinge. Similar to Wall Street trading or business success. They think their labor or slave labor exploited and the reason for wealth. They are the geniuses and go unpaid.

    • By Forrest on February 23, 2015 at 7:26 am

      There were no textbooks in the class, but lecture and damming graphs that portray the coming doomsday. First the projections were just extensions of current conditions. Meaning no allowance of improvements for the use of resources, no allowance for better technology for detection and harvest of fossil fuel, no alternative fuel supply. We were to run out of petrol in 20 years as all reserves known. Note, that twenty year period expired as well as the next 20 and we have more reserves now then back then. If one believed in conspiracy theory, it would easily believe a majority within the Environmental Sciences are on board with the evil of fossil fuel as the resource allows to many to inhabit the planet. My class prof was directing all problems to overpopulation and that if we relied on natural order and sustainability we we have to decrease population dramatically. That we are all fooling ourselves with alternatives or solutions as the ultimate solution is to decrease people. So, all efforts must target fossil fuel. Up to date Environmentalist target any energy source that may improve quality of life and push living standards higher. PBS had a series on wonderful life harvesting food locally and walking to dine with group of neighbors. Much wine floating about and smiling from excited opposite sexes. All human needs met and hardly a wildflower out of place.

      • By Forrest on February 23, 2015 at 7:45 am

        BTW, the efforts to maximize cost of auto transportation are in line with Environmentalist effort. They’re not against high living standards, just they must be allocated to the proper people. The ones who donate high sums to their cause or the ones that carry water for the cause. Also, the government workforce that makes it all happen. They can film the wonderful reclaiming of nature for you to view on your couch at your apartment. So, regulations for safety, efficiency, and low pollution that greatly increase cost not so bad. Good to crunch up the cheap old cars as well. I understand upon historical perspective, Henry Ford inventions for low cost vehicle dramatically improved the average life of Americans. Some think the invention evil, because it allowed citizens more freedom, other like to live with such inventions to make life more enjoyable.

  10. By Forrest on February 27, 2015 at 7:34 am

    The tanker car DOT-111 was originally designed for corn syrup transport. It has 7/16″ thick steel and must pass a 100 PSI pressure test. They toughened up the steel per torch annealing (normalized) process. It appears the tanker was accepted per ethanol transport use and hence utilized for Balkan crude. No problem transporting ethanol, but a big problem for this particular crude oil as the mix contains more than usual explosive gas such as propane that will bubble out upon jostling of mix. There is air within the tank which mixes with propane. This is a horrible condition per explosive conditions. The tanker probably safe with ethanol transport, but wholly inadequate for Balkan crude. First they should purge air out of tank with nitrogen or CO2 and utilize the inert gas for venting needs upon drainage as this will eliminate gas emission. This will greatly decrease explosive limit upon fire as well. Tank cars won’t explode, but vent and generate a fire plume. Also, lack of bomb explosion would make it safe for fire fighters to squirt their water. Rail cars should also adhere to truck safety standards of energizing brake to off condition. It’s a fail safe. If the system fails such as overnight shut down, brakes bleed air pressure and constant spring pressure applies brake, naturally. Also, the train should have electronic or human surveillance of all cars running down the tracks all the time. Probably, active electronic inspection of track and force conditions as well will auto pilot interruption capability. Me thinks this sector needs more competition and responsibility. Meaning when government agency takes over safety the incentives drop as well as inventiveness. Also, crony politicians act with hand in pocket of powerful indebted corporations to thwart progress. Better to maximize open market competition, energized with much daylight of good consumer info and knowledge. Same with Environmental political corruption that goes unchecked with harmful force to nations future and safety.

  11. By Forrest on March 15, 2015 at 8:21 am

    BTW, fossil fuel at all levels have immense power, thus a danger. Remember the MOAB propane bomb in Iraq that leveled city blocks? A nuclear like mushroom cloud from the explosion. Just a two step ignition of very large propane tank. How about homes that have a natural gas leak. Those huge storage tanks a natural attractant for terrorist. Fuel supply chain when in war is target number one and a most dangerous job in military. Even the production and transport of raw material extremely dangerous to health and environment. Storage and transport of such material requires extreme caution and hardened hardware with safety/emergency devices and training. Also, appears the material has wide variety of chemical and geological formulations that make the job tougher. One must be continually on guard with testing and precautions. Interestingly, the other power fuel source dangers, such as a hydro dam fracture and electrocutions. My guess the safest easy to store would be coal, ag products, forestry products, nuclear, hydro, solar, and wind. Easiest to store with dependable dispatchable power; hydro, coal, ag products, forestry products, and nuclear with the caveat that nuclear can’t dial down easily. Those energy sources with low waste problems; wind, solar, hydro, forestry, and agricultural products. Of the group most safe and least harm to environment with high value for tough job of transportation or high portability; forestry and ag products production of ethanol. Also, hydrogen and battery if these last two sources charged upon safe green supplies. There really isn’t a safe green supply for battery power storage and hydrogen solutions don’t exist yet. For transportation needs within current proven technology that exists, safe, and no huge investment in infrastructure required it appears to me ethanol would be the benchmark. Double that for cellulosic ethanol. Raw material creates a lot of domestic jobs, safe, waste products actually valuable, storage of raw material excellent, cost is excellent for both production and vehicle use. Much head room for improvement projected per the continual development for utilization and production. Environmental impact low per spills and combustion of pure molecule reactions forming pure CO2 and water upon ideal conditions. Not much invested within technology to minimize pollutants as of yet as the emissions are well below current requirements. Carbon sequestration and product utilization of pure CO2 waste streams developing fast and once again would push the biological solution to energy production to the forefront of most valuable and most potent to decrease carbon emissions.

Register or log in now to save your comments and get priority moderation!