Adaptedfrom Marcus Stern, “How to Prevent an Oil Train Disaster” ?2015 by The New YorkTimes Company. Originally published May 19, 2015.
1 The Obama administration recently issued new safety rules for oil trains, to take effectin October. But it didn’t do the one thing many independent petroleum engineers say could immediately reduce the risk of a deadly disaster: require energy producers to remove more of the volatile gases that the oil contains when it comes out of the ground, before they load the crude into rail tankers.
2 This can bedone easily at most wells. North Dakota recently required producers to extractsome of these gases, which include propane and butane. The state is thee picenter of the new oil boom and was the departure point for most of the more than 400,000 oil tank cars that rolled across the United States in 2013.
3 But the North Dakota rule is still too lax, and instead of toughening it, the new federal rules focus on strengthening the tankers that carry the oil. That is a long overdue step that will take five years to complete. And already, the oil industry, which owns many of the tankers and will bear much of the cost of upgrading them, has sued to extend the deadline.
4 Oil companieshave a financial stake in keeping the volatile gases in the oil. When thegas-laden oil arrives at refineries, the gases can be separated, processed and sold for added profit. The gases can even be sold overseas, something that can’t be done with the oil because crude oil can’t be exported.
5 If producers are forced to remove these lucrative gases at the well, that significant additional revenue would be lost. North Dakota doesn’t have the degasification plants and pipelines needed to process the gas and get it to market.
6 ….. As the trains rumble along, the gases begin separating from the oil, forming an explosive blanket of vapors on top of the roughly 30,000 gallons of flammable oil that a single tanker usually contains.
7 If aderailment occurs and the tanker ruptures, a spark could ignite those vaporsand send a mushroom-shaped fireball hundreds of feet into the sky, and flaming oil in all directions. A burning tanker could ignite the next one.
8 That’s what happened in Lac-Mégantic. It has also happened innine other places in North America in the past two years, including Alabama,Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois and twice in North Dakota. Fortunately,nobody died in those other accidents because they occurred in rural, isolatedareas. But oil trains also run through crowded urban and suburban neighborhoods. Albany is a major hub for oil shipments by trains from NorthDakota, with trains traveling south along the Hudson River toward mid-Atlantic refineries.
9 The Obama administration is well aware of this risk. After the earlier oil train explosions, the administration issued a series of emergency orders and safety alerts stressing the oil’s volatility and the “imminent hazard” it posed to communities along the tracks.
10 But after almost two years of orders, alerts and testing, the 395-page final rule offered no explanation for why the trains were exploding and took no steps to requireoil developers to reduce the oil’s volatility before shipping it by rail. Instead, the administration said it planned to spend up to two more years studying whether — and perhaps how — to regulate oil’s volatility.
11 Some have suggested that federal action was unnecessary because on April 1 North Dakota began requiring oil companies to reduce their oil’s vapor pressure to no more than 13.7 pounds per square inch. But this is clearly inadequate. Some of the oiltank cars that have ignited have had vapor pressures well below that.
12 The new rules have other short comings. No disclosure is required to alert the general public that oil trains will be passing through their borders. Emergency responders canget the information, but wider distribution raised security concerns. Andrailroads are not required to have comprehensive emergency plans, as recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board and Canada’sTransportation Safety Board.
13 The new rules on oil trains don’t go nearly far enough to protect the town centers, schools and homes that these trains pass by with increasing regularity. The Obama administration should quickly enact an aggressive interim volatility standard while it searches for a more durable solution.
Looking out across Los Angeles from Mt. Wilson Observatory at night, the hills andmountains look like islands in a sea of light. It was here that Edwin Hubblefirst proved our universe was expanding at a rapid pace. From this vantagepoint you can still make out the major constellations, but drive into the light bubble and suddenly the cosmos feels awfully far away. The city shines sobright it blocks out the stars, a phenomenon known as "skyglow."
Light seeps into the sky from stadiums, malls, parking lots, offices and billboards. But streetlights, with their harsh bulbs, are the worst offenders.
The215,000 streetlights in Los Angeles are meant to thwart more than fumbled keys and stubbed toes — they're a luminous security blanket, or so the Los Angeles Bureauof Street Lighting would have you believe. The bureau's slogan: "Bright Lights, Safe Nights." Other cities use the motto too.
We intuitively assume that more lights mean less crime. Indeed, police are often taught that, second to more cops, good lighting is the best crime deterrent.
Yet decades of research show there's no scientific reason to believe that darkerstreets are inherently more dangerous. And, increasingly, researchers arefinding that excess light is toxic for both humans and wildlife.
In onestudy, published July 28 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health,researchers examined 14 years of data from 62 local authorities across Englandand Wales, hunting for crime and collision trends among agencies that reducedtheir lighting.
England'scouncils — local governing bodies — have sought to slash costs and carbonemissions in recent years under pressure from the national government. Inresponse, 106 councils either dimmed or turned off some streetlights, affectingan estimated 750,000 lamps altogether.
Noteveryone is happy about the darker skies. The "great streetlight switch-off" has sparked a political debate, with the country's automobile association asserting that six people have died since 2009 as a direct resultand opposition politicians rushing to lay blame.
But the health researchers found no link between collisions and lighting despite studying about 14,500 miles of roadways where streetlights were dimmed, lightedfor only part of the night or shut off entirely. They also examined lighting'seffect on crime and similarly found no increase in burglary, auto theft,robbery, violence or sexual assault in areas where lighting policy had changed.
Thescientists published a companion study based on surveys of 520 people living indarkened areas. Many residents said they didn't even notice the dimming, letalone feel threatened by an uptick in crime.
Other studies back up these results. In 1998, for example, Chicago tried to fight crime with a three-phase plan that included upgrading 175,000 streetlights, aswell as lights in transit stations and alleys around the city. The city kept experimental control areas unchanged and found that crime consistently increased in both the well-lighted and the control areas. Illinois criminal justiceofficials concluded that strolling down a dark alley was no more dangerous thandoing so in a well-lighted one.
All this should make taxpayers uneasy. Last week, the Cities at Night project released areport estimating that the European Union alone spends about $7 billionannually to power streetlights.
But there's something much more troubling than wasted money about losing the night.A growing body of biological research suggests that night time lighting messeswith the circadian rhythms of humans and other animals, wreaking havoc oneverything from sleep patterns to DNA repair.
Studies have shown that nighttime light exposure is a risk factor for some cancers,diabetes, heart disease and obesity. As scientists continue to gather evidence,the American Medical Assn. has already recommended that cities reduce light pollution and that people avoid staring at electronic screens after dark.
LEDs areof particular concern. Cities around the world are converting from traditional yellow sodium-vapor lamps, which cast their light in a narrow range, tobroad-spectrum LED streetlights. Los Angeles has installed 165,000 LEDs inrecent years, slashing streetlight energy use by 60% and netting $8 million inenergy savings annually.
Theproblem is that these bright lamps increase skyglow by emitting more blue light than the older technology. They also could have unintended effects on wildlife.Artificial lights can disrupt navigation, mating and feeding among the manynocturnal animals that share our cities.
A University of Bristol study published this month showed that certain mothscan't perform evasive maneuvers against predatory bats under LEDs. And recent research in New Zealand shows some insects are 48% more attracted to the newLEDs than they were to the old-fashioned lights. The researchers worry thatwidespread use of the new technology will create a "white-lightnight" that intensifies light pollution's pressure on ecosystems.
The psychological loss is less measurable.
When the 1994 Northridge earthquake hit, some area residents actually called 911 toreport a strange cloud hovering overhead — it was the Milky Way, the nebulousand star-rich center of our galaxy.
What happens when people grow up without stars? Do they lose their connection to the cosmos that our ancestors tracked so carefully, night after night?