Fighting Dangerous Crude Oil Trains in Baltimore
In March 2018, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh signed the Crude Oil Terminal Prohibition into law. The law bans the construction of new crude terminals, helping to prevent a surge in the transport of volatile crude oil trains through the city. The law is the first of its kind on the East Coast and follows examples set by Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington in 2016.
With this victory, residents and advocates will no longer have to worry about a new crude oil terminal being proposed in the city. Over three years after launching a fight against a Texas oil company’s proposal for a new crude oil terminal in South Baltimore, a strong coalition of residents, advocates, and community leaders achieved a major victory for public health and safety, air and water quality, and the climate with the passage of the Crude Oil Terminal Prohibition.
At a campaign celebration, the bill’s lead sponsor, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, emphasized the importance of the extensive public comments and testimony submitted in support of the bill. And a staffer with the mayor’s office specifically noted all of the phone calls and comments their office received as a reason for the mayor’s support. All of this goes to show: organizing works!
Big Oil’s push to extract and refine more extreme forms of oil has led to a surge of trains carrying toxic, explosive, and climate-polluting crude oil on our nation’s rail lines. Crude oil train traffic grew 5,100 percent from 2008 to 2014 due to the rapid increase in fracking for oil in the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota and in tar sands oil extraction in Canada. By September 2015, U.S. crude oil production had surged to an average of 9.4 million barrels per day. An alarming rate of derailments and explosions across North America has followed.
In Maryland, crude oil trains are a danger to communities near rail lines across the state and to Baltimore in particular. The oil industry has targeted Baltimore — with its large and centrally located port — as a gateway to ship crude oil to East Coast refineries. And since the crude export ban was lifted in December of 2015, the oil industry has been given a green light to ship crude oil worldwide. Oil exports nationally have skyrocketed, increasing 1,000 percent from 2009 through the end of 2016.
To protect our communities and climate, CCAN is fighting to put the brakes on Big Oil’s use of Baltimore as a gateway for extreme crude oil.
Oil Trains in Baltimore: Putting 165,000 residents at risk
The East Coast has become a primary region receiving crude oil by rail from both North Dakota and Canada. An average of 450,000 barrels per day was delivered by rail to the East Coast in 2014.
Rail companies have fought to keep oil train routes secret in Maryland, and even sued the state to prevent their public disclosure.
However, we know these trains have rolled through Baltimore in large numbers. A company called Axeon shipped more than 100 million gallons of crude oil out of the Fairfield Peninsula in South Baltimore over the years 2013 and 2014 (up from zero gallons the previous two years). Substantially more crude oil can pass through Maryland communities, but that data is not captured by regulators unless the oil is unloaded.
According to a Stand.earth analysis of known rail routes, crude oil trains travel in close proximity to Baltimore homes, schools, churches, and major economic hubs like the Inner Harbor. When overlaid with U.S. Census data, that puts 165,000 Baltimore residents in the crude oil train “blast zone” — the area that would be directly impacted if a train were to derail and explode.
Explosive Oil: Too Dangerous for the Rails
The Bakken crude oil that the fossil fuel industry is moving on trains is more toxic and explosive than conventional oil. It contains a higher concentration of flammable methane and toxic fracking chemicals.
Not only are the contents extremely hazardous, but the trains themselves are outdated and dangerous. A study by the National Transportation Safety Board found that crude oil trains have a high incidence of failure. The oldest model trains, labeled “DOT-111,” have derailed repeatedly around the country and are nicknamed “Pepsi cans on wheels.” But newer “CPC-1232” train car models have also exploded in recent derailments, proving that there is no safe way to transport crude oil by rail.
When accidents happen, the human and environmental impacts are costly. The deadliest oil train explosion occurred in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Québec. A 74-car crude oil train derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying the small town. In April 2014, 10 newer tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, VA, spilling about 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil and setting the James River on fire for two hours. Between February 2015 and June 2016, nine trains carrying crude oil derailed and caused fires, explosions, and evacuations across the country.
The US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimates that an oil train derailment in an “average” population density area would cost $1 billion. In a densely-populated area like Baltimore, PHMSA estimates the damage would be $5 billion for lives lost, property ruined, and cleanup.
In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new rules intended to improve the safety of crude oil trains. However, the rules include loopholes and weak standards that would allow hazardous trains on the rails for years to come, and the Trump administration has started to undo even these weak regulations. Most recently, the Trump administration rolled back a requirement that crude oil trains be equipped with modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.
Air Pollution: Disproportionate Impacts to South Baltimore
The South Baltimore area that oil companies use as a gateway to ship crude oil already bears a disproportionate burden of toxic industrial pollution compared to the rest of Maryland. In 2016, ATTOM Data Solutions found the South Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay had the third highest Total Environmental Hazard Index value in the country.
Crude-by-rail transit also increases air pollution along the entire route from extraction site to refinery or export terminal. In a recent study, researchers in Pittsburgh quantified the air pollution and greenhouse gas impacts of diesel emissions from crude oil trains. They found that crude oil train shipments caused roughly 30 deaths from air pollution and over $420 million in damages in 2014.
Climate Change: Deepening Dependence on Harmful Fossil Fuels
Crude-by-rail transit enables the extraction and transport of some of the dirtiest oil on the planet, contributing to climate change.
A significant portion of crude oil transported by rail originates in the Bakken shale field in North Dakota and Montana. A 2016 study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that the Bakken Formation is largely responsible for the recent uptick in global ethane emissions. This one oil field was found to emit 2% of the entire world’s ethane emissions — about 250,000 tons of this planet-warming greenhouse gas.
The tremendous growth of Bakken shale oil production has also led to a rapid rise in the production of associated natural gas, which is often “flared off” on-site – so much so that it can be seen from space. Flaring at the Bakken shale emits the equivalent of roughly 6.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, which is the greenhouse gas pollution equivalent of adding about 1.4 million cars onto the road each year.
Community Organizing: Beating Back Big Oil’s Plans
Elected officials, first responders, neighborhood associations, and residents are coming together all over the country to take a stand against crude oil trains and crude oil export terminals — including right here in Baltimore.
In 2014, Texas-based Targa Terminals applied for a permit to establish a new crude oil shipping terminal in South Baltimore that would have sent millions of gallons of crude oil through the Chesapeake Bay to East Coast refineries. But Marylanders fought back and forced regulators to hit the pause button on Targa’s plans in June 2015
Due to this public pressure, Targa officially withdrew its permit application in July 2016. This victory protected Baltimore residents from an additional 380 million gallons of dangerous crude oil being shipped through the city on railways per year.
Thanks to your help, we’ve prevented an immediate increase in crude oil trains moving through Baltimore neighborhoods — for now. But stronger city, state, and federal action is urgently needed to protect our health, safety and climate.
Leaders at all levels can protect communities from dangerous crude oil trains:
BALTIMORE CITY COUNCIL: The Baltimore City Council is considering a zoning ordinance to prohibit the construction of new crude oil terminals within Baltimore. This measure would prevent an increase in crude-by-rail traffic in the city and protect residents from explosive crude oil trains.
STATE LEGISLATORS: Our state legislators should support legislation during the next General Assembly session to require rail companies to disclose the route, frequency and volume of crude oil being transported by rail in Maryland
FEDERAL LEADERS: Our federal leaders can enact an immediate ban on crude oil trains, because there is NO safe way to transport crude oil. At a minimum, the Department of Transportation can take the oldest and most dangerous cars, including DOT-111s, off the rails.
To get involved with the campaign, contact: Taylor Smith-Hams, our Healthy Communities Campaign Organizer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “Baltimore council members propose ban on new crude oil facilities”, Baltimore Sun, 10/16/2017
- “Bill Introduced in City Council to Ban Crude Oil Terminals in Baltimore,” Baltimore Fishbowl, 10/17/17
- “On anniversary of train derailment, groups call for transparency, legislation on crude oil in Baltimore,” Baltimore Sun, 6/13/17
- “Is Baltimore safe from rail accidents?”, Baltimore Sun, 4/3/2017
- “Company Withdraws Plans for Crude Oil Terminal in Baltimore”, CCAN Press Release, 7/11/16
- “Crude oil continues to flow through Maryland amid debate about safety”, Baltimore Sun, 3/30/15
- “2 railroads sue Md. to prevent disclosure of crude oil shipments”, Baltimore Sun, 7/28/14
- “NTSB investigating derailment, oil spill in Lynchburg”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 4/30/14
- Crude Oil Trains in Baltimore: Too Dangerous for the Rails, CCAN Factsheet, January 2018
- A Just Transition for Baltimore: From Pollution and Dangerous Fossil Fuels to Clean Energy and Good Jobs, CCAN Factsheet, October 2017
- View the text of the zoning ordinance before the Baltimore City Council, Ordinance 17-0150
- Public Health and Safety Risks of Crude-by-Rail, Maryland Environmental Health Network Factsheet
- Oil Train Blast Zone interactive map, ForestEthics
- MD HB 1434 – Rail Safety Act of 2016, CCAN Factsheet, January 2016
- Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude by Rail in America, Oil Change International Report, October 2014