Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I was saddened to read this morning that a train with a load of crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, and I started writing this post. I heard during the afternoon there was one person killed, and more may still be found. In addition, the oil spilled into the Chaudière River. And most curiously, the derailment wasn’t from overspeed or failed brakes or a crash or the usual stuff. Instead, the train took off on its own and committed suicide … go figure.
The train had been parked and the conductor was not aboard when “somehow, the train got released,” Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, Inc Vice President Joseph McGonigle said on Saturday.
“We’re not sure what happened, but the engineer did everything by the book. He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief,” McGonigle said. The Star
Figure 1. Derailed tank cars, Canada SOURCE
In addition to the human compassion we all feel for the folks to whom these tragedies occur, plus hoping that no train workers or hobos were hurt, the crash sparked off a boatload of thoughts about the absolute need for storable transportable energy; about the inherent dangers of concentrated stored energy; and about how we move stored energy around the planet.
First, energy is synonymous with development. Our civilization requires huge amounts of it. Without the ability to extract, move, and store immense amounts of energy, we’re literally back to the Bronze Age, where wood melted the bronze and cooked the food. I’ve tried living at that level, it’s not my idea of a good party. Plus, if everyone burns wood for energy the world will look like Haiti … so we’ll take the need for some kind of storable energy as a given.
Next, stored energy is inherently dangerous. If you accidentally drop a wrench across the terminals of a car battery, it could cost you your life … and that’s just a car battery, not a railroad tank car full of crude oil. If stored energy gets loose, it is immensely dangerous.
The materials in which the energy is stored are also often, as in this case, a danger to the environment. If you think electricity solves the problem, crack open a car battery and consider the toxicity of the chemicals and heavy metals involved.
Finally, there are more dangerous and less dangerous ways to transport energy.
Arguably the least dangerous way to transport energy is in the form of electricity. We move unimaginably large amounts of energy around the world with only occasional injuries and fatalities. Don’t get me wrong, a 440,000 volt power line is not inherently safe. But we are able to locate our electric wires in such a way that we don’t intrude into their space, and vice versa.
But that’s just moving electrons. If you have to move the molecules, the actual substance itself, things get more hazardous.
In terms of danger, railroads aren’t the most dangerous. That’d be the fuel trucks carrying gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and propane on the highways. Plus of course the stored energy in the fuel tanks of the cars and trucks involved in every crash. If you consider an electric power line transporting energy running alongside a freeway, with each vehicle transporting stored energy in the form of liquid fuel, and how often lives are lost or damage done from the power lines, versus how much damage the stored energy does when a tanker truck crashes and catches fire on the freeway, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.
I’d put railroads as the second most dangerous way to move energy. This for a couple reasons. One is because people built along the railroad tracks, and cities grew up around the rail hubs. This means you’re moving things like crude oil and gasoline, each of which stores huge amounts of what was originally solar energy, through highly populated areas.
Another is that a railroad tank car stores a huge amount of energy. A tank full of crude oil hold about 820 barrels of oil, which conveniently has about the same energy as a thousand tons of TNT. Of course, normally this energy is released slowly, over time. Even if the tank ruptures and the fuel pours out, the release of energy occurs over tens of minutes.
However, the fuel is contained in enclosed tanks. As in this case, if fire is raging around an intact tank car, it heats the tank until the contents start boiling. Depending on the fuel involved, if the vapor pressure of the contents is high enough, the tank can rupture in what is called a BLEVE. That stands for “Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion”, and it was the cause of death in boiler explosions in old-time Mississippi steamships. When a boiling liquid under pressure suddenly experiences an instantaneous pressure drop, the entire body of the liquid can directly flash into vapor. With a steam engine the liquid is water, and the resulting steam from an exploding boiler was incredibly lethal and destructive. Now, consider a BLEVE of a flammable liquid … instead of making an expanding ball of steam, you get an expanding ball of fire.
At that point, the “kilotonnes of TNT” is no longer a metaphor.
So what is safer than a railroad? Well, on land there are pipelines, and at sea there are tankers. The tankers are dangerous for the environment, but given the amount of energy moved per year, the spills are not numerous. Obviously, as a sailor and a commercial fisherman I’d prefer there’d be no spills … but energy is synonymous with development, and stored energy is inherently dangerous. So all we can do is continue to improve the safety of the tankers, and stay aware of the dangers. Having worked in the industry, I know the many safety regulations surrounding tanker ships. These regulations are indeed numerous and cover the situation well … and despite that, there is always more to learn.
On land, pipelines have an excellent safety record. People are generally unaware of how many pipelines there are in the US. Here are the trunklines that just move crude oil, including from Canada:
Figure 2. Crude oil trunklines SOURCE
Figure 3 shows the major pipelines for “refined products”, meaning gasoline, diesel, and the like:
Figure 3. Pipelines carrying refined products. SOURCE
Finally, Figure 4 shows the pipelines carrying gas, both within and between the states:
Considering the very large number and length of the pipelines, the number of accidents per year is very, very small. Like electrical lines, we generally don’t notice (or even know) that these pipelines exist, but they move huge amounts of many kinds of both crude and refined products all over the US.
Which brings me to the final thought brought up by the Canadian train derailment.
There is a proposed expansion of the KeystoneXL Pipeline, to handle an increased amount of heavy crude from Alberta. Opponents of the expansion think that stopping the pipeline expansion will somehow stop the flow of Canadian heavy crude into the US. This is not true for two reasons.
First, the existing Keystone pipeline is already bringing Alberta heavy crude into the US. The expansion will just, well, expand that amount.
More to the point, however, is the fact that large amounts of Alberta heavy crude is also being moved into the US by railroad. And not by just any railroad. It’s mostly coming in on the Burlington Northern Railway.
And by what can only be considered an amazing coincidence, the Burlington Northern Railway is owned by a major Obama donor. And by an even more amazing coincidence, the major donor bought the BNR just three years ago.
And this was not just any major Obama donor, but Mr. Warren Buffett, a key money supplier for the Obama re-election effort …
Now of course, the longer that Mr. Obama can delay approving the Keystone Pipeline, the longer the oil will be moved by Mr. Buffet’s railroad. I’m sure you can predict what Mr. Buffet wanted for his investment in the Obama campaign, those guys don’t pitch in the big bucks without wanting something …
And very likely Buffett learned early on, during Obama’s first administration, that Obama would block the pipeline, which is probably why he bought it. Buffett is many things but he’s no fool. Will we ever be able to prove that chain of events? Don’t be naive, Buffett is immensely wealthy for a reason. He doesn’t leave tracks, he doesn’t show his cards, he plays everything close to the vest. We won’t find any smoking guns on this one.
I find it quite amazing. In the late 1800s, the railroads were major players in the political scene, and no one made an important decision without first kissing the rings of the railroad barons.
And now, more than a hundred years later, we still have a President kissing the ring of a railroad baron before making his decision.
So … don’t expect any quick resolution by President Obama of the Keystone Pipeline issue. Every day it is delayed, hundreds of thousands of dollars flow into Warren Buffet’s pockets.
And US politics continues to fashion in the old, time-tested way … money talks. And even in this modern time of emails and smartphones, I’m glad to know some of the most valuable hoary, ancient US political traditions have been kept alive.
And when I say valuable traditions … I mean very, very valuable. These days, being a friend of Obama is worth big bucks.
Finally, we see that the claims by the opponents of the pipeline that they are trying to “protect the environment” are simply not true. If they were really concerned about the environment, they’d want the KeystoneXL pipeline expansion. It is much more dangerous to the environment to move the Alberta heavy crude by railroad tank car than by pipeline … and the tragedy in Canada is an excellent example of why.
And a happy Independence Day weekend to all,
PS—In any case, if the pipeline is blocked, the Alberta heavy crude will still be burned, either shipped to China, or shipped to the US and Buffett will be even richer, or burned in Canada, but it will be burned. That’s the crazy part—the opposition to the pipeline, even if successful, will achieve nothing … welcome to the crazy world of modern environmental NGOs and their followers …