When Oil Trains Come Through, There’s No Room For Humans

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File

Living on an oil rail route is bad enough when you’re allowed to use the trains. There’s the possibility your town will get covered in toxic chemicals or explode, or that it will make the traffic really unbearable, but at least you can still ride the train. And in areas like rural North Dakota, rail links to the rest of the country can be essential for residents and the local economy. But lately, the concerns of energy companies are trumping people, as oil train traffic forces passenger trains to skip several North Dakota cities and causes long delays for the ones that are still served.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder route runs from Chicago in the East to the Pacific Northwest, passing through North Dakota and Minnesota along the way, among other states. But with oil and other freight trains taking up the BNSF Railway Co.-owned rails that Amtrak relies on, passenger trains are skipping the cities of Devils Lake, Rugby, and Grand Forks. And even cities that aren’t being skipped are experiencing up to 18-hour delays. Shuttle buses are in service to connect stranded towns, but the cut service and delays are expected to last at least through the end of February.

As Mayor Dick Johnson of Devils Lake told the Associated Press, “oil and freight is taking priority over people, that’s pretty much a given.”

Oil boom proponents typically point to jobs created and businesses supported to justify the downsides of fossil fuel extraction. But the Associated Press’ James MacPherson spoke to small business owners in Devils Lake, North Dakota who said the lack of rail service was bad for business: an ice fishing guide seeing long-planned excursions cancelled, and a funeral director who relied on Amtrak to ship human remains. And those are the kinds of jobs that will stick around in North Dakota long after the ground is drained of oil and the drillers have left behind nothing but environmental devastation.

In 2014, trains are expected to move as much as 90 percent of oil produced by North Dakota’s Bakken formation, which recently surpassed one million barrels a day. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration warned in January that Bakken crude may be especially flammable, posing a “significant fire risk,” adding special danger to any towns they pass.

But that doesn’t mean pipelines are a safe solution. Far from it, 2013 was replete with pipeline spills and explosions. The only safe place for oil is underground.