Pipeline Trains

By Beacon Staff

I grew up riding dirt bikes, snowmobiles, and Willys Jeeps. Oil is in my family history.

When I was barely a teenager, I pumped gasoline at my dad’s service stations. Later my dad returned to the Merchant Marines. He worked the super tankers that transported crude oil from some of the politically meanest places on the planet, to our shores.

Super tankers are not small. The pistons running these vessels are as big as a house. They’re an engineering marvel, and it my dad’s work kept them moving.

I got hooked onto rigs at those service stations. Back then gasoline cost barely 50 cents a gallon. Efficiency was not something many cared much about.

Thirty-five years ago, my first car got 30 miles per gallon; it had a four-cylinder boxer engine. My second car had a slant six cylinder and got 25 mpg.

Today, I still get 30 mph. That’s in the summer, if I treat it right, and maintain tire pressure. Now, I own more horsepower and torque, and all-wheel drive. Auto efficiency has changed some.

There are plenty of spill accidents from super tankers breaching off shores, to deepwater oil pipeline bursts in the Gulf of Mexico, to oil train cars flipping into Whitefish Lake.

These catastrophes are a part of the cost of doing business. Today we drill bigger, pump faster and put wells all over the place. But gratefully we’re not drilling Glacier National Park or the Whitefish range.

In my first legislative days in Helena, I was stupefied when a member of the state’s oil and gas conservation board answered a question during testimony. Being a gearhead, I understood the oil and gas portion of the board but wanted to know their definition of conservation. I was interested in efficiency.

Nothing prepared me for the answer: conservation was viewed as how fast the product is pumped from the ground. These oil men are efficient and well represented in Montana.

Places like Glacier, Columbia Falls, and Whitefish have become default thoroughfares for a new crude oil pipeline. Not a traditional pipeline but rather train cars loaded with crude oil that daily pass through our towns and by the clean waters of our rivers and lakes.

Recently, strong winds derailed nearly 50 trail cars of non-hazardous material in Montana. Plenty of cargo has spilled on the treacherous mountain tracks between East Glacier and Whitefish.

The Bakken crude being transported through the Flathead is a volatile product. Its flash point is closer to gasoline than oil, that’s because it contains more natural gas.

The train inferno that exploded in North Dakota was massive. As the Columbia Falls fire chief recently stated in local newspapers, “It doesn’t matter how much you train. It’s going to be a big disaster.”

As pumping in the oil fields surpasses even the carrying capacity of the proposed national pipeline, expect to see plenty of oil cars moving through the valley.

Elected officials should get serious on how to more safely transport this explosive kind of crude through our towns and outdoors. Some trains must obviously travel slower in places and the use of snowsheds through the Rockies should be vastly expanded.

The federal transportation department recently noted that better rail safety guidelines won’t come until next year. With 400,000 gallon of crude oil derailed east of us, better safety sounds like far away.

Local, state and national elected leaders must assure that oil transport through our towns and by our waters is safe.

If the one challenge of an oil boom economy is delays of tourist passenger rail, we’d be lucky. With or without a national pipeline, expect a big future of oil trains through the Flathead. Added safety upfront offers more than an ounce of prevention.

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