When Lindsay Williams moved into her home near the railroad tracks on Houston’s east side, she knew that freight trains would roll by regularly. What she didn’t expect was that trains more than a mile away were often stopped for hours on the neighboring tracks, blocking numerous traffic crossings during the day and flooding her home at night.
“A couple of nights ago, we had a locomotive right outside our house for six hours during the night, shaking the whole house,” Williams said.
In the coming months, the rail traffic problems could worsen. Two major North American railroads, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, have proposed a $27bn (£22bn) merger that would make it easier to move freight across North America with the first unified transcontinental rail network. The merger is awaiting final approval from US regulators. In Houston, that would mean eight extra trains going through each day.
However, the rail merger doesn’t just add more inconveniences to residents of Houston’s East End. If it goes through, it would create the first direct route from Canadian bitumen sands mines in Alberta to heavy crude refineries in Port Arthur, an industrial city on the Texas coast. “We fully expect that the combination of the two railways will only strengthen their support for this new source of bitumen,” a vice-president of USD Group, a Texas-based midstream company, told a Canadian newspaper last year.
Local environmentalists say the increase in fossil fuel refining along the Gulf Coast will affect their health – and increase carbon emissions. It could also put residents like Williams at risk of a hazardous oil spill. “I live pretty close to the track if there’s rails, and there’s hazardous materials, it’s going to have a direct impact on me,” she said. “Not to mention the hundreds of other residents who have these lines – it’s pretty scary.”
In Houston, one local coffee shop owner says business can drop by up to 40% when trains block customers from entering. Educators have shared stories of students sneaking under or between train cars to get to school on time. And city data shows fire trucks and ambulances were delayed nearly 1,400 hours in 2021 due to stopped trains blocking their normal routes.
Williams and others in his neighborhood installed a security camera in front of the tracks and found that about one-third of the trains that pass through come to a complete stop, running for an hour on average. In the most severe cases, the trains stopped for up to six hours.
A spokesperson for Canadian Pacific said the company “has met with Houston area leaders to discuss the merger and is committed to facilitating continued meetings as part of our voluntary mitigation.”
On February 3, residents of East Palestine, Ohio, faced the dangers of personal accidents when a train carrying chemicals crashed and exploded, causing the evacuation of 2,000 people. Train derailments are not uncommon—in 2021, there were more than 1,000 across the US, according to the Department of Transportation.
The combined rail company wouldn’t be the only rail line trying to bring more oil sands to southeast Texas. In Utah’s oil sands-rich Uinta basin, Fort Worth-based Rio Grande Pacific Corp. has proposed a railroad that could cut through a national forest and then connect with existing routes that run parallel to the Colorado River. – the source of drinking water. for 40 million people – to bring more oil sands to refineries on the Texas coast.
Oil from the Uinta basin is currently shipped to Salt Lake City, and production from the basin is capped at about 80,000 barrels, said Deeda Seed, the senior public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.
But if the railroad opens access to Gulf Coast refineries, production from the Uinta basin could quadruple, to 350,000 barrels per day, according to government estimates. Local officials in Utah appear to have shown their support for the plan: a regional government body paid $28m of public funds to finance research and allow the railway to be privately owned and operated.
Oil sands, sometimes called tar sands, contain bitumen, a hydrocarbon, trapped between molecules of sand, water, clay and other substances. Bitumen extraction is a pollution intensive process. Because of how destructive the process is, especially on land vital to Canada’s First Nations, oil sands mining has long been controversial. And from a climate perspective, refining bitumen into usable fuels, such as gasoline, takes more energy and pollutes more than refining other lighter fuels. A 2014 study by the Congressional Research Service estimated that oil sands refining produces 14% more carbon dioxide than conventional oil, for example.
“Tar sands is an extra heavy oil and requires a specialized refinery to refine it,” said Josh Axelrod, senior counsel at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Most of the world’s heavy oil refineries are located [in Texas]so that is why all efforts are directed there.”
It is not that common to ship oil by rail. US oil shipments hit a record 11% in 2014. Pipelines tend to be more cost-effective. But the merger of the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads would make shipping oil by rail cheaper, since the companies would no longer have to pay fees to switch between tracks owned by different companies. The merger came on the heels of the Biden administration canceling the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal in 2021. That pipeline would have increased the overall capacity to move Canadian oil sands to the Gulf coast. Other pipelines, like Canada’s Dakota Access and Trans Mountain pipeline, have long been targets of environmental advocates who hope to shut them down.
The two rail lines have already signed a 10-year agreement with ConocoPhillips Canada and the USD Group to haul tar sands across the continent to the USD terminal. For its part, USD Group has said in its annual reports to the SEC that existing rail lines — such as those currently independently operated by Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern — offer a less expensive alternative. bureaucratic on the new pipelines.
Kansas City Southern did not respond to requests for comment. When asked about the potential increase in oil sands imports, a spokesperson for Canadian Pacific cited the US Surface Transportation Board’s environmental analysis, which concluded that the federal agency “does not expect an overall increase in energy transportation as a result of the Proposed Acquisition. resources, including oil”.
The belly of the beast
In Port Arthur, the freight rail lines are already making their way across the city, passing close to homes as they bring cargo to the refineries and petrochemical plants. The city itself was founded by Arthur Stilwell, the same man who founded what is now Kansas City Southern. Stilwell wanted a deep-water port and railroad that could connect the Gulf of Mexico to the midwest, serving as a major export and import hub. The discovery of the Spindletop oil field in nearby Beaumont in 1901 transformed Port Arthur into an oil and gas hub. Today, the city is home to the largest refinery in the US.
Pollution from refining worsens with the increase in oil sands refining.
“There are a lot of problems with bringing that highly toxic and toxic oil here,” said John Beard, a Port Arthur native who founded the Port Arthur Community Action Network. “Why are we doing this? Why are we bringing this into our community and so close to where people live?”
In Port Arthur, USD Group says the producers are using a proprietary blend of a product called DRUbit that is “designed to be non-hazardous and non-flammable for rail transport”. But advocates say an oil spill would still be catastrophic.
According to the environmental impact statement for the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern merger, there could be nearly 13 “releases” of hazardous materials each year along any one point of the railway, up from the current potential of 10 a year.
“One of the problems with oil trains in general is that they are extremely heavy,” Axelrod said. “If one of these derailed or ruptured your body of water, that would be the worst – [the oil] would definitely go for it.”
Additionally, as the planet warms, derailments could become more frequent since temperatures above 105F (40C) could increase the risk of them occurring, according to the environmental impact statement for the merger. In Houston, the climate crisis is expected to increase the number of days above 100F in the 2030 decade.
The residents who will be most affected by the rail routes also expressed that they felt left out of the environmental review process. The Surface Transportation Board, which must approve the merger, has held just one public meeting in Texas — and that was in Beaumont, 85 miles east of Houston, last fall, said Melissa Beeler, a former attorney for Air Alliance Houston. She said the draft environmental impact statement left out the scale of the changes specific to Houston’s neighborhoods.
“The data that was available was very generalized and doesn’t capture what people experience on a day-to-day basis,” Beeler said.
Rail freight transport is expected to double by 2045 – meaning an increase in train blocks, pollution and potential accident risk is here to stay.
In response to some of these community concerns, the final environmental impact statement was updated to add that “the railroad companies have committed to meeting regularly with community representatives in the Houston area to work with communities to address concerns” and that will be. a platform for residents to report stopped trains.
The Surface Transportation Board declined to comment on the details of the merger or the Uinta basin project, saying both matters were still pending. An agency spokesman said a final decision on the merger was expected in the coming months, and that a decision on the Uinta basin will not be made until a pending court case is settled.
“The burdens will fall largely on communities that are already facing environmental justice issues — beyond the railroads, thinking about cancer clusters and port emissions, truck distribution centers, truck traffic,” said Beeler. “This is contributing to air quality and public health impacts for our communities.”