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Meet 'The Funnel': Will farmers, businesses suffer from more coal and oil trains?

A study for community organizations warns that more rail traffic could be bad for the economy.
Loaded and empty coal trains meet near the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

Loaded and empty coal trains meet near the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Paul K. Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy.

They call it “The Funnel,” a 70-mile confluence of BNSF rail tracks that feeds nearly 50 trains daily into Spokane and, according to an exhaustive research study, as many as 82 additional coal and oil trains could cascade into The Funnel in another decade.

The study warns that the “heavy traffic ahead” could damage both agriculture and intermodal shipping that must compete with coal and oil trains on a rail system that faces limits both around Spokane and across the state.

Big Energy’s race to the Pacific has already generated a lot of controversy west of the Cascades, but impacts on Eastern Washington, the Columbia Gorge and Montana are likely to be even more significant, according to the report for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, based in Billings. (The council describes itself as a regional network of grassroots groups dedicated to building "a democratic, sustainable and just society through community action.) The research was done by Terry Whiteside and Gerald Fauth, both with deep backgrounds in transportation.

The report finds there will be sharp growth in the volume of U.S. coal exports through the Pacific Northwest. By 2023, the Northwest could exports 170 million tons if all proposed or expanded ports go ahead; 2012 saw 11.8 million tons of U.S. coal exports, all via Canada. Coal trains (full and empty) would go from 7 a day currently to from 52 to 62 daily in 2023. Oil trains, still relatively few, are seen as quickly reaching 22 a day — nearly half would go to Vancouver, Wash., where a proposed Tesoro-Savage terminal is now being studied by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

The export of crude oil is barred by federal law; the Bakken crude would go from trains to West Coast refineries or terminals such as Vancouver, for barging to refineries. But efforts to lift the export ban have been discussed in Congress.

The potential of 85 daily energy trains would be added to a system already nearing capacity in several key sections. Not all proposed terminals will be approved, the authors note, but even if 75 percent are, the traffic would be very heavy. Their report is the first comprehensive study since Bakken oil entered the Big Energy mix.

The authors raise the potential impact on Northwest industries of coal and oil trains dominating the rail infrastructure and, in essence, bullying smaller industries off the routes that many have used for generations:

As a result of the high volume and profitable revenue, [Powder River Basin to Pacific Northwest] export coal movements and Bakken oil trains to the [Pacific Northwest] would likely be favored by the railroads over other types of existing railroad traffic. The remaining capacity available to other railroad shippers would be limited, constrained, and more expensive. ... Other freight shippers would likely see increased costs and higher railroad rates as a result of rail congestion and the limitations on available rail capacity. Railroad transit times would likely increase for other railroad traffic as a result of congestion.

BNSF has consistently maintained that it can handle additional traffic without shorting longtime customers. Then-CEO Matt Rose in November 2012 told Puget Sound Business Journal, “Why would we want to haul one type of freight at the expense of another? The answer would be, we’re going to handle all customers’ business — that’s in our own self-interest. We think with long-term planning, and working with WSDOT, and the other agencies we deal with, and providing proper capital, we can do that.”

Whiteside and Fauth say Rose understates the potential traffic.

The matter of effects on existing industries has not been widely discussed by regional business and industry leaders, who have either supported the export plans or, more frequently, kept out of the controversy. Chambers of Commerce, predictably, have led the drum rolls, in several instances in an alliance with construction and shipping unions.


Spokane rail traffic, already some of the region's heaviest, could face new challenges from more coal and oil trains. lndhslf72/Flickr.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 3:58 p.m. Inappropriate

" There appears to be a culture of denial in Spokane and Montana"

Well, maybe so but I think we have to remember that it isn't just railroads and coal that disfigure our planet. I ran across the following text from a protest sign at Heathrow Airport (an aerial view of which, BTW, is not appealing):

"A placard from one activist at Heathrow expressed it thus: “You Fly, They Die.”
Airplanes operate on petroleum fuel, which means they release large amounts of carbon dioxide when they fly. Commercial air travel is currently responsible for a relatively tiny part of the global carbon footprint —just 3.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But the unique chemistry of high-altitude jet emissions may produce an additional warming effect, while the explosive growth in air travel makes it one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon gases in the atmosphere. And unlike energy or automobiles, where carbon-free or lower-carbon alternatives already exist, even if they have yet to be widely adopted, there is no low-carbon way to fly, and there likely won’t be for decades."

In another recent Crosscut article it is noted that Washingtonians aversion to transporting coal has Wyoming sending lawyers our way. If they sue, they will have a point: folks in Western Washington like airplanes; we fly in them, we buid them...I think it is now fair to say our State government is in the business of building airplanes... and we make no apologies, at least not yet, but the moral stance that comes with environmental purity does not really belong to us does it? do we have a "culture of denial" or just a blind spot?

kieth

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Quite the contrary, farmers like me will benefit as the infrastructure will grow to handle additional rail traffic, creating more shipping competition and lowering my transportation costs. The study as mentioned is clearly tilted and hardly objective making it highly suspect of having any real value. This is especially true if you consider that the story doesn't mention anything about contrasting the peak rail traffic in 06 (25% higher than today)with the expected jump in oil/coal trains. The obvious result is the impression that additional oil/coal trains will overburden the system, which is not true. BNSF has been very clear about how they would manage the increased frequency of trains and it can handle far more traffic without adding additional capacity, since it was doing so in 06. The funnel can easily be managed to provide greater shipping competition for 5ht generation farmers like me.

Posted Fri, Feb 21, 12:34 p.m. Inappropriate

~"The words used to get a piece of the action are determined by the audience,"
The Road to Hell, Micheal Maren, 1997

When one starts to listen, Maren's first example is all too typical: In 1993, farm states put forth an amendment to restrict "cargo preference" for American shipping of "foreign aid" to rates no more than twice the competitive world market rate, reasoning that excessive rates came out of the amount of food exported. Marine states countered by comparing the cost of cargo preference to the cost of agricultural subsidies: In 1992, the US Government had spent 90 times the amount spent on "cargo preference" for "domestic and export subsidies for agricultural products."

The action in question began with farm state senator Hubert H. Humphrey figuring out how to 'solve' U.S. farmers producing more food than the markets demanded. Post Sputnik the spin turned from Food for Children to Food for Peace. The most devilish phrasing of all.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 7:09 p.m. Inappropriate

For the last ten or more years, BNSF has been studying alternative plans to ease congestion at Sandpoint.

The predominant plan seems to be reactivating some right-of-way that was rail banked. The solution probably would have been in place by now except for falling traffic due to the Bush Bust. The biggest concern right now is crew availability since they did not replace crews at the same rate again due to the Bush Bust.

This whole article is much ado about nothing.

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