We love our gas. We need our oil. The world is moving grudgingly toward renewable energy as business as usual continues nearly unabated. There are cracks in the veneer of our energy system and they are bubbling to the top of the news like Texas crude.
The recent hacking of the 5,500-mile-long Colonial Pipeline exposed the vulnerability of the soft white underbelly of American consumers. Under the threat of an interrupted supply of gasoline, consumers showed their true colors by hoarding gas in everything from milk jugs, open buckets and even plastic bags.
Lots of people yukked it up on social media while Darwinian Americans lined up and freaked out. Embarrassing.
We are hooked. After all these years and all that we know, we are the last advanced country to stop the idling, use smaller motors or even admit there’s an existential environmental threat. We do this at our own peril.
If you sit along the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs you can watch the charming trains chug through town and down the tracks along Glenwood Canyon. Even though rail is the safest way to transport hazardous materials, accidents happen and it’s only a matter of time before one occurs here.
The latest reminder came last Sunday when a Union Pacific train carrying familiar-looking tankers full of hazardous materials derailed and caught fire. Evacuations were ordered for a five-mile radius. The accident in rural Sibley, Iowa, involved 47 rail cars and was within spitting distance of a nearby river.
In February 2017, a train carrying 100 tankers of oil derailed and crashed into the Kanawha River in West Virginia. The video of the fireball is impressive and downright frightening. Everything within a half-kilometer was pretty much vaporized. The fire burned for 10 hours and two towns were evacuated. The spill threatened the local water supply.
That accident was the second major incident in three days. The other was in northern Ontario, Canada. Twenty-nine of 100 oil cars derailed. Some spilled. Seven of the tankers, carrying 30,000 gallons of oil each, exploded and burned.
In both of these derailments the tankers were the new designs that regulators were hoping would improve safety. Now they are saying the improvements are not enough and regulators are scrambling to make another change. Industry is resisting.
In 2013, a gas train got loose and the runaway train slammed into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and leveling downtown. That one cost $1.2 billion or more.
What would happen if a spectacular crash, fire and spill occurred along our Colorado River? Many times as I’ve floated along the river I have seen tanker trains, up to a mile long, clicking past just feet away from the lifeblood of the West, the Colorado River.
According to a recent federal transportation study, an accident could happen here. It may just be a matter of time and we should be prepared.
An Associated Press study looked at past accidents, shipping volumes and routes. The study predicted 207 derailments over the next 20 years and at least 10 “higher consequence events,” meaning big accidents in populated areas. The study also said that just one incident could cost $6 billion in damage and kill hundreds.
I like the idea of erring on the side of caution. For starters, we should sip any nonrenewable energy and use less of these energy sources when possible. We should do this as we use our awesome American ingenuity to bring renewables online as quickly as possible.
By making the shift to conservation while increasing and improving renewables, we may reverse climate damage, reduce pollution and ultimately lessen the chance that oil tankers will derail into our river and explode. The less oil each one of us consumes, the fewer tankers needed to transport the highly volatile goo.
I know, I know. Pipelines lessen the need for rail transport. But pipelines are problematic, subject to spills, terrorism and other sad and tragic human failures and they don’t solve the need to wean ourselves from burning the stuff to make stuff go.
Former Navy SEAL David M. Cooper led a study on the terror threat to the Keystone XL pipeline. He used public data on the pipeline’s path and thickness and concluded that a total of 12 pounds of explosives placed strategically at three pump locations would “cause explosions that could trigger a catastrophic spill of 7.24 million gallons.” Cleaning up something like that would create a lot of jobs so I guess there’s an upside to everything.
I’ve always thought that pipelines are vulnerable and now I have YouTube videos and the testimony of a genuine American hero to back me up.
Steve Skinner is paying attention. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.