Open post

Why Every Oil Tank Car Is A Tank of Doom

Train of Doom
Freight train, freight train, run so fast.

According to a May 2014 report by Oil Change International, from 2007 to 2013 the volume of oil shipped by rail in the United States increased 70 times. The current volume of oil shipped by rail in Canada and the US is at 1 million barrels per day (bpd). Forecasts predict volumes as high as 5.1 million bpd nationwide by 2016. According to Sightline Institute, if all oil-related projects proposed in our region are approved, 858,800 bpd, a little more than the capacity of  the Keystone XL pipeline, could soon be passing through the Pacific Northwest.

Meanwhile, scientific evidence leaves little doubt that climate change is already beginning to wreak havoc in the form of extreme weather events, receding Arctic sea ice, and melting ice sheets. This September was the warmest recorded yet. With the CO2 that human activity has so far sent into the atmosphere, scientists believe that the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will result in a 20 meter (66 feet) rise in sea level over the next several centuries. Almost anyone over 50-years-old you talk with these days will acknowledge the weather is weird compared to what they knew growing up. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows and you don’t need a climate scientist to know that the wind is acting strangely. The last thing we should be endeavoring to do is burn fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate but as the statistics above and others reflect, that is exactly what we are doing.

Even with all of the alarming news about the climate, politicians–like Governor Kitzhaber, for example—want to see oil-by-rail as only a public safety problem with some kind of a solution. Public safety is, of course, something we should be worried about. Trains pulling 100 cars of explosive Bakken Shale crude are going right through the centers of towns, right past homes and schools. They have already killed dozens of  people. Fire departments and other agencies say they are ill-equipped to handle potential fires. The trains run parallel to the Columbia River for about 250 miles. Are regional agencies prepared for a major spill on the Columbia River? But even if we could make the trains completely safe from derailments and explosions (which is probably impossible–they don’t call them bomb trains for nothing), can we ever consider them safe if each one contains approximately 327 metric tons of climate destroying CO2?

Admittedly, 327 metric tons, though it sounds big, is a tiny fraction of the world’s total annual CO2 output of 32 billion metric tons per year. One could dismiss each individual tank car of oil as a miniscule drop of doom in the big bucket of total green house potential. Symbolically however, the reality that our society has chosen to exploit a resource that is damaging to ecosystems, human health, social fabric, and the global climate, in spite of all the evidence that screams urgently at us to stop burning fossil fuels of any kind, each tank car represents certain doom for human industrial civilization. Each one symbolizes our collective inability to acknowledge the truth of our predicament. In every tank car are the malls, the oversized big-box retail stores, the oversized trucks and cars, the oversized houses built at the end of cul-de-sacs and hours-long commutes, the endless volumes of plastic trash washing into the oceans, and all of the things that we should be trying to rethink as quickly as possible. Each tank car represents all the things that we are clever enough to invent but too stupid to manage responsibly. Each car represents all of those aspects of our nature that we seem incapable of changing. If that ain’t doom, what is? It’s not so much the absolute amount of CO2 that is in each tank car. It is the cosmically tragic fact that we let them keep rolling.

Why do we let them? As it turns out, each tank of doom contains more evil than meets the eye. The cars keep rolling because, with the political and economic systems as they are, the average person has practically no power. Even when it is becoming apparent that a majority of U.S. citizens support policies to curb climate change, there is no progress on policy. In a political system in which money is considered free speech,  the preferences of those with the most money win out.  Through corruption, collusion, and the media control and advertising that leads us willingly to the slaughter, a few corporations and wealthy individuals lock North Americans into an isolating and politically debilitating dependency on the automobile that is mowing down every ecosystem on the planet. Each oil tank car represents the entrenchment of that dependency and all of the corruption that keeps the junky crawling back for more. 

It's our very own ToD-111. Don't worry. It's perfectly safe.
It’s our very own ToD-111. Don’t worry. It’s perfectly safe.

Yes. The tanks of doom just keep coming, with more and more of them coming every day. There is such a profound sense of unfairness about all of this. Effectively what is happening is that very few individuals with lots of money are deciding the fate of all life on the planet. They may not be conspiring together necessarily,  but as the National City Lines case illustrates, collusion happens. Even without a conspiracy, their collective efforts to act only in their own self-interests achieve the same result. What is an ordinary person to do? There are lots of ways that an individual can disengage from some aspects of the current system. There are a lot of groups that one can join in order to add their efforts to the construction of better alternatives.

At some point though, we have to get political. If we want to manifest the kind of radical changes that are necessary to break free of the stranglehold that the fossil fuel companies, and corporations generally, have on our society, joining with others in mass actions of civil disobedience to disrupt business as usual may be the only tool we have left. History shows that the only time radical system change happens is when some critical mass of the citizenry finally stands up and so acts. The New Deal reforms of the 1930s, the civil rights and environmental legislation of the sixties and seventies where all passed on the tails of mass citizen unrest. These were real reforms that made a positive difference in our well-being. Compare those periods with the era of political sleep walking we’ve been muddling through since the mid-seventies. While we’ve been sawing logs, many of the reforms of the New Deal and those of the 60’s and 70’s have been effectively erased. If there is any hope in all of this doom, it is in people finally standing up once again and resisting in ways that cost the elites real money. Just think what could happen if enough people got together and decided not to go to work for a few days. If only…

1506336_449541818480997_1406005406_oTo raise awareness that every oil tank car on the North American railways is a tank of doom, and to inspire more people to stand up with us, a number of us at Portland Rising Tide have built (in keeping with the times) an oversized bike float called, naturally, the Tank of Doom. The Tank of Doom was originally called “Megaload by Bike”. We were inspired by a vision of a regulatory dream world in which the Oregon Department of Transportation would not permit Megaloads—large pieces of Alberta tar sands mining and processing equipment that approach the size of Saturn V rockets—to cross the state unless they were towed by Warren Buffett on a bicycle. It seemed like it could make great street theater to parody such a fantastic event. 

Alas, the megaloads were quickly forgotten once they left the state. Fortunately, our design lent itself to a quick conversion to something that looks very much like an oil tank car.  Those are likely to be highly visible in the media and not forgotten soon since over the next few years various problems (like explosions) may be frequent occurrences as a few million barrels of crude are moved over the North American railways each day.

Look for the Tank of Doom at a climate justice direct action happening soon near you. What do you do when you see an endless train of Tanks of Doom coming down the tracks? Stand up! Fight back! 



 * The 327 metric tons/tank car is a calculation based on a hard-to-pin-down figure: kilograms of CO2 per barrel of oil. The number you get there depends on whether you assume that every hydrocarbon molecule in the barrel will be turned into a combustible product or whether you consider the reality that some of those hydrocarbons get turned into asphalt, plastic polymers, etc. If you assume the former, you get around 432 kg CO2 / barrel and 317 kg CO2 / barrel if don’t assume the entire barrel is burned.

It seems reasonable to use the higher number because, yes I am biased, and because the calculation does not account for embedded CO2. For example, they are mining sand from various places and transporting that to the Bakken Shale drill sites. What about all those flare-offs of methane at each wellhead? How much energy is required to truck the huge amounts of water that fracking requires out to the drill sites? It would take weeks or months of research to track all this down. If you could with some accuracy include the embedded energy in a unit of Bakken Shale crude, you would probably get a number way higher than 317 kg CO2 / barrel.

Here’s the calculation:

Tank car typical capacity 31800 gal
Gallons per barrel of oil 42
CO2 per barrel of oil according three different sources:

317 kg (
433 kg (
432 kg (

kg CO2 / tank car =  [ ( 31800 gal / tank car ) /  ( 42 gal / barrel ) ] X 432 kg / barrel
                             =  757.14 barrel / tank car X  432 kg  CO2 / barrel
                             =  327086 kg CO2 / tank car

mt CO2 / tank car =  ( 327086 kg CO2 / tank car ) / ( 1000 kg / mt )
                              ~=  327 mt CO2  / tank car

 This is an approximate calculation.

Open post

Open Letter: Laborer Challenges Union Support of Fossil Fuel Export Projects

Detail from Diego Rivera's mural at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, "Man at the Crossroads".
Detail from Diego Rivera’s mural at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, “Man at the Crossroads”.

The following is an open letter from  union member Tim Norgren to Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). Read on as Tim explains why union support of fossil fuel export projects is short-sighted and generally not in the best interest of workers. 

Dear LIUNA and Fellow Workers,

In joining forces with avowed union enemies to lobby for export projects like coal and bitumen/oil terminals and pipelines, which would create some short term, but VERY FEW long term local jobs, I strongly feel we’re selling ourselves out, along with every worker in America!

The propositions stand to benefit billionaires like the Koch brothers and other members of ALEC, which as you know are behind state by state attacks on worker’s rights via campaigns like the “right to work” bill recently pushed in OR (see for more).

Export proponents Arch and Peabody coal (ALEC members) were featured in the Labor Press last summer for shifting pensions worth over $1.3 BILLION (owed to some 20,000 beneficiaries) to a shell company- then bankrupting it, leaving retirees destitute. This “success” opened the door for Detroit to become the first city to declare bankruptcy and default on pensions. Scrutiny showed this to be an ALEC “model” scheme. Supporting companies which commit such crimes against dedicated workers is UNACCEPTABLE for anyone who purports to be part of a labor movement!

According to Greg Palast (investigative reporter for the BBC), the Koch brothers stand to save about $26 a barrel bringing in the oil from the Keystone XL instead of from H. Chavez in Venezuela. The Koch’s Houston refineries are designed to refine only the high carbon tar sands oil available from those sources and cannot even process the lighter Texas crude. $26 a barrel would add up to a lot more ammo in their union-busting arsenal.

Should proposals succeed, then when our job’s over, coal will continue being extracted from public lands, with mainly non-union miners and huge federal subsidies (taxpayer expense) in obscenely higher quantities than now, then carted though our neighborhoods alongside explosive fracked oil tankers. Tar sands oil will keep flowing into Koch Industries refineries. And while NOT keeping us working, it WILL continue to profit enemies of labor (fueling their next campaigns) as it’s shipped to Asia, providing cheap fuel for deathtrap factories where subsistence workers slave at jobs outsourced from living wage employment in America!

Indeed as industrial and other jobs are replaced with government subsidized resource extraction and privatization schemes, across the board from fossil fuels and lumber to such basic staples as water and social services, we can see in our mirror a third world nation.

In my humble opinion as a member of LIUNA, pursuing these proposals rather than insisting on cleaner, more labor-friendly energy and transmission projects IS SUICIDE! Are we truly willing to follow the short-term carrot on a stick, like an ass to the slaughter? To feed ourselves willingly to those who would destroy us? Or do enough of us still have the conscience, guts and faith to stand up with those who’ve struggled at such cost to give us rights as workers?


Tim Norgren, Laborers Local 320


Open post

Is Natural Gas in the Pacific Northwest Getting a Free Pass?

Natural Gas Storage TanksTouted as a transitional fuel that can help us fight climate change, shale gas is being pushed by the fossil fuel industry and politicians as a step towards energy independence and reducing carbon emissions.

If shale gas is vital for our fight against climate change, why are we planning to export it to Asia? Why is it that fracked gas releases more methane, is more energy-intensive, and plays a greater role in contributing to climate change than coal? And how is poisoning the water of millions of Americans ever acceptable? Even in “green” Oregon, we have several proposals for shale gas infrastructure that will threaten our air quality, our watersheds, and our climate while benefiting only a wealthy elite.

One proposal is for up to three gas power plants in Troutdale. These plants create higher levels of acid rain and smog that will blow towards the scenic Columbia River Gorge, a vital part of Oregon and Washington’s economy. Even Morrow-Pacific, operator of the Boardman coal-fired power plant, is questioning why this proposal is moving forward with little debate when it will have a greater impact on the air quality and scenery of the Gorge than their own coal plant. The Troutdale power plants are being bid on by Development Partners, a New York energy company that keeps tight-lipped on its involvement in other energy projects. The Troutdale city council recently gave the project a $46 million subsidy to promote its construction and operation, with the expected lifespan of the plant to be 30 years.

Another project is the Warrenton LNG terminal, where a battle has been raging on the front lines for over a decade. The hijacking of our democracy by Kitzhaber and the Land Use Board of Appeals has been egregious. While finally caving to massive public pressure on the Boardman coal export terminal, the LUBA was simultaneously declaring that a Clatsop County vote to reject the LNG terminal proposal was illegal because a county commissioner had a bias against he project. He had run a campaign promising to oppose the LNG terminal, got elected, and then voted like he promised.

Why is it legal for elected officials to take massive amounts of cash from corporate and fossil fuel interests and vote on their behalf, but it is deemed a bias of conflict-of-interest when they vote to serve the public interest?

The Jordan Cove LNG terminal in Coos Bay is another controversial project due to its impact on local fisheries and ocean pollution while using eminent domain to construct a pipeline through Southern Oregon. The project, funded by out-of-state investment group and promoted by Senator Ron Wyden ( would promote increasing our exports of gas to Asia while continuing climate change at a catastrophic rate. The Pacific Connector Pipeline, powered by eminent domain land grabs, is also providing more infrastructure for this export expansion while putting rural communities in danger of ruptures and leaks.

And now right here in Portland we are facing another fossil fuel export terminal: a $500-million liquid propane terminal in the Port of Portland (Terminal 6). This terminal will accept propane (a product of gas and oil refining) via rail cars and stored underground next to the Willamette. Propane is a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change, but is also the main contributor to exploding crude oil trains. A propane rail car explosion in Tennessee killed 16 people in 1978. These tanks also sit on land that is prone to liquefication in event of an earthquake greater than a 6.0. And Mayor Charlie Hales is supporting all this as an environmentally-friendly project. With this terminal and Arc Logistics, Portland will have two fully-operational fossil fuel terminals on its banks.

We must ramp up our resistance to these projects just as we resist oil and coal projects. We act in solidarity with communities on the front lines who have no water to drink or no land to grow food. We know that if these projects are allowed to happen, more extraction will occur and their will be catastrophic consequences for those on the front lines of extraction and for all people who are experiencing the effects of climate change.

Coal, Oil, Gas.

None shall pass!

Open post

LUBA Invalidates Clatsop County Denial of Pipeline Permit


This recent decision by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) goes in the Lily Tomlin “no-matter-how-cynical-you get-you-can’t-keep-up” file, right next to the various Oregon and US Supreme Court rulings that campaign money is the same thing as free speech. As reported in this story by The Oregonian, LUBA has invalidated the Clatsop County Commission’s decision to deny a permit to a 41-mile segment of pipeline that will feed the Oregon LNG export terminal. Why? Because Commissioner Peter Huhtala was found to have been an active opponent of LNG projects in Clatsop County before he was elected.

So climate justice activists, if you ever happen to get the urge to run for a county commission seat or any other elected office in which you might be involved in making land use decisions, be sure to recuse yourself from voting on all decisions that involve anything regarding transporting, producing, or burning fossil fuels. You are immediately disqualified by the fact that you are informed about our situation as a global society and know that we must stop producing and consuming fossil fuels by around 1985 (Oops! We better get going on this one.), and actively oppose fossil fuel projects on the grounds that it might be immoral to deny the future of life to other humans and other species by burning down the entire biosphere with fossil fuels. Of course, this assumes that in the process of running for office, your moral inclinations are not somehow tempered by the bundles of “free speech” donated to your campaign by individuals and companies who profit grandly from those same fossil fuel projects on which you’ll be making decisions. In that case, Mr/Ms Commissioner, Mayor, Representative, Congressman, Senator, Judge, President, whoever you are, as PRT organizer Jonah Majure says, “you’re good to go!”


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