The Bakken Boom, the Climate Crisis, and the Complicity of Policymakers Who Say They Want to Do Something About It

Oil Trains in Oregon —  June 5, 2014– by Scott S.

In order to maintain a livable world, fossil fuel use must radically decline in the immediate future. This will require foregoing new mines, drilling projects, and pipelines; it will also require decommissioning a great deal of the ones that already exist. This is hardly an extreme proposition. Whatever economic, political, or logistical difficulties it entails, they are insignificant in the face of the social chaos, human suffering, and mass extinctions we face. As the climate crisis rapidly escalates toward a point of no return, we must begin an immediate phase out of coal, oil, and gas.

Instead, fossil fuel production in the United States is skyrocketing.


From around 5 million barrels per day (bpd) in the late 2000s, American crude oil production has increased in just a few years to over 7 million bpd. (1) The reason for this is mostly the development of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) techniques that allow oil to be extracted from previously inaccessible sites. Fracking is best known as a method of extracting natural gas; however, whether oil or gas is the target, the process is the same. Highly pressurized solutions of toxic chemicals are injected underground in order to fracture rock formations that contain fossil fuels, releasing them to the surface.


The Bakken Shale, in North Dakota and Montana, is one region that has experienced an enormous increase in oil production with the advent of new extraction technology. From around 200,000 bpd in 2008, Bakken oil production exceeded 750,000 bpd in 2012. (2) It is projected to reach 1.6 million by 2015. (3)

Escalating Bakken oil production has required a great deal of new infrastructure for transporting that oil to refineries. Pipelines are the cheapest way to ship crude oil, and a huge number of them have been constructed in the Bakken in the last few years, totaling around 520,000 bpd in new oil capacity.  Pipelines, however, are costly and time-consuming to build—their capacity has remained well below production in the region. Oil trains have made up the difference. Bakken crude oil rail terminals had the capacity to transport 115,000 bpd in 2011. By 2013, about a dozen new facilities had been constructed, increasing overall capacity to over a million bpd. (4)

Over a million bpd. That’s an awful lot of new oil infrastructure. For some perspective, Keystone XL is an 830,000 bpd pipeline.

This oil travels to refineries and distribution terminals throughout the country, including in the Pacific Northwest. In 2007, 659 oil cars traveled on Oregon railroads. In 2013, over 19,000 tank cars transported more than 11 million barrels of oil through the state. (5)


There are two crude oil distribution terminals in Oregon: the ArcLogistics facility in industrial Northwest Portland, and Global Partners’s facility in the Port Westward industrial park, north of Clatskanie. Both offload oil from trains, store it, and transfer it to oceangoing ships, which make their way to refineries on the West Coast.

With essentially no public involvement or regulatory proceedings, the ArcLogistics terminal began operations in January of 2014. (6) This was possible because the site did not require construction, and thus a permitting process, like other controversial fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the region. Union Pacific trains carry oil along Interstate 84 in eastern Oregon and into the gorge before reaching the site, which has the capacity to store around 1.5 million barrels of oil (7). The volume they are currently transporting is unknown; it is telling, however, that in recent months, for the very first time, UP trains carrying nothing but oil have been seen in the Columbia River Gorge. (8) The facility is currently undergoing construction that will increase its operational capacity, anticipated to reach 16,250 bpd. (9)

While the ArcLogistics terminal is beginning to add a significant amount of traffic to Oregon rail lines, but for the time being, the Global Partners facility near Clatskanie accounts for the majority of the state’s oil trains. The Clatskanie site was constructed in the late 2000s to refine ethanol from grain, with $36 million in public loans and tax credits for clean energy, and went bankrupt after less than a year. It was then purchased by its current owners and, with virtually no public input or regulatory process—again, because no construction was required—began to ship crude oil. (10)

When the plant transitioned to oil, a permit modification was issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for the facility to process no more than 50 million gallons (about 1.2 million barrels) yearly. In 2012, the terminal’s operators notified DEQ that they intended to significantly increase their shipping volume; the agency responded that greater oil quantities would require a new permit. The company then resorted to the simple expedient, time-honored whenever the public interest has the potential to limit profits, of breaking the law. In March of 2013, it began shipping more than was permitted, and by November, the facility was processing around 7 million barrels in a single month—far more than the legal limit for an entire year. (11)

One might think that, with climate change killing Washington coast shellfish (12) and threatening to quadruple the size of Pacific Northwest wildfires from 20th century levels, (13) the DEQ, confronted with a facility shipping crude oil, at quantities that wantonly break the law, in a facility paid for with public clean energy money, would do everything in its power to shut that facility down.

Instead, it is reviewing a permit for the facility to expand the scope of its operations. (14)


The frenzy of Bakken oil production can best be described as an explosion—in the metaphorical sense, certainly, there is an “explosion” of new oil extraction activity like, say, the “explosive” growth of the computer industry in the 1990s—but also in the far more literal sense that Bakken crude is exploding all over North America, killing people and wreaking havoc on communities.

In April 2014 an oil train derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people and spilling thousands of gallons of burning oil into the James River. (15) In December 2013 an oil train accident in North Dakota resulted in a 400,000 gallon oil spill and a fire, forcing the evacuation of 1,400 people and causing $8 million in damage. The month before, a 90 car oil train derailed in Alabama, caught on fire, and spilled an unknown quantity of oil into nearby wetlands. (16)

In June 2013, 47 people died in an oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. (17)

In May of 2014, the US Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring rail lines to notify state emergency responders of any train carrying 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude through a given state. The order is written in surprisingly scathing language, describing the number of  oil by rail accidents in the previous year as “startling,” and the quantity of oil spilled “voluminous.” It describes the ongoing series of oil train accidents as an “imminent hazard,” defined legally as “a substantial likelihood that death, serious illness, severe personal injury, or a substantial endangerment to health, property, or the environment may occur . . . ” (18)


One might think that, in a world where climate change is killing crops and raising oceans, the federal government, when confronted with an oil boom so hasty and perilous it is deemed an imminent hazard, would do everything in its considerable power to put an end to that boom.

Instead, regulators said they would “urge” companies to use safer cars. (19)

Much like the federal government, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has “deep concern” about oil trains, at least insofar as safety is concerned, but apparently feels he can do little about them. (20)

Of course, even if stringent regulations were implemented, ensuring that no more oil train fires would occur, there is still the fundamental issue that fossil fuels are only transported in order to be used. The gravest threat is not from an accident but the deliberate, systematic production of CO2 emissions in an era of rapidly changing climate. Bakken oil presents the risk of burning trains and cities—and the guarantee of a burning world.


There can be no doubt that many policymakers understand the gravity of the climate crisis, at least well enough to make lofty speeches about our duty to confront it. For instance, in June of 2013 President Obama said: “. . . science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind. The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years . . . I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” (21)

His policies, however, do exactly that—perpetuate and even escalate greenhouse gas emissions, and thus condemn us to a planet that’s beyond fixing. In March of 2012, he issued an Executive Order expediting the federal review and permitting process for infrastructure projects. (22) The same day, he issued a Presidential Memorandum specifically directing agencies to expedite oil pipelines, citing the southern half of Keystone XL as an example of the need for a more streamlined process of environmental review. (23)

Obama might consider firing his policy staff and replacing them with his speechwriters.

Governor Kitzhaber, too, has made numerous statements indicating he is well aware that we live in an age of looming global catastrophe. In a letter to federal agencies regarding coal export facilities he said:

“Oregon faces particular threats from climate change, including the reduction in the amount of precipitation falling as snow and the resulting effects on water supplies and fish and wildlife as well as power production from hydroelectric dams, more frequent and intense storm surges, more flooding, likely loss of land in coastal area, more frequent and severe forest fires and increased forest pests and diseases, and detrimental impacts on shellfisheries as a result of ocean acidification.” (24)

There can be no doubt that Kitzhaber understands the climate impacts of the Bakken oil frenzy. Nonetheless, he has allowed an unprecedented increase in oil train traffic in the state, and his agencies are currently reviewing permit applications to expand those operations. Just like he issued permits for the coal export facility whose horrific consequences he described in his letter.

Epicurus, attempting to disprove the existence of God, said:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

A similar logic could be applied to our policymakers. They are either unwilling or unable to do the work of rapidly transitioning society away from fossil fuels which so desperately needs doing. Whether they are truly powerless or simply evil, they have abrogated their responsibilities: the power to create a liveable world, therefore, lies with us.


1US Energy Information Administration. 2013. Energy Outlook 2013.

2Davies, Phil. 2013. “Busting Bottlenecks in the Bakken.” Fedgazette: Regional Business and Economics Newspaper. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

3Platts. 2013. “New Crudes, New Markets.” Platts Special Report. Price Group/Oil Division.

4Platts. 2013. ibid.

5Davis, Rob. 2014. “Oregon oil train shipments increased 250 percent in 2013.” The Oregonian April 17, 2014.

6Schick, Tony. 2014. “Crude Oil Terminal Planned in NW Portland.” OPB EarthFix. February 14, 2014.

7Schick, Tony. 2014. “Oil Trains Now Delivering Utah Crude to Portland.” OPB EarthFix. May 16, 2014.

8Davis, Rob. “Behind discovery of Columbia Gorge oil train, an amateur photographer looking for wildflowers.” The Oregonian April 24, 2014.

9United States Securities and Exchange Commission. 2014. “Current Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Arc Logistics Partners LP.” January 21, 2014.

10Learn, Scott. 2013. “Ethanol plant in Clatskanie, built with $36 million in Oregon loans and credits, now shipping crude oil.” The Oregonian May 13, 2013.

11Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. 2014. Notice of Civil Penalty and Assessment Order. Cascade Kelly Holdings LLC. Case No. AQ/AC-NWR-14-014.

12Valentine, Katy. 2014. “Ocean Acidification, Wildfires Are Taking Their Toll On Pacific Northwest.” ThinkProgress. May 9, 2014.

13U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2014. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment.

14Oregon DEQ. 2014. Ibid.

15Gebrekidan, Selam. 2014. “CSX train carrying oil derails in Virginia in fiery blast.” Reuters.

16US Department of Transportation. 2014. Emergency Order. Petroleum Crude Oil Railroad Carriers. Docket No. DOT-OST-2014-0067.

17Mouawad, Jad. 2014. “U.S. Issues Safety Alert for Oil Trains.” The New York Times May 7, 2014.

18US DOT. 2014. Ibid.

19Mouawad, Jad. 2014. Ibid.

20Davis, Rob. “Gov. John Kitzhaber has ‘deep concern’ about oil train safety, tells feds to move faster.” The Oregonian May 2, 2014.

21The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 2013. “Remarks by the President on Climate Change.” June 25, 2013.

22Executive Order 13604 of March 22, 2012. Federal Register 77(60):18887-18890.

23The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 2012. “Presidential Memorandum—Expediting Review of Pipeline Projects from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas and Other Domestic Pipeline Infrastructure Projects.” March 22, 2012.

24Kitzhaber, John. 2012. Letter to John McHugh, US Army, Merdith Temple, US Army Corps of Engineers, Ken Salazar, Department of the Interior, Robert Abbey, Bureau of Land Management. April 25, 2012.

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