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Letter: Rail transport of oil vs. grain

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has come under fire recently for delaying approval of Enbridge’s Sandpiper pipeline proposed to cross Minnesota’s northern lake country while they consider the attributes of several alternate routes also proposed. Critics argue this delay harms Midwestern farmers (as well as markets waiting on coal, propane and taconite) who find themselves competing for rail car capacity with oil shippers.

Crude oil shipment by rail has drastically increased while grain and other commodities are waiting for transport, placing additional pressure on states to approve risky pipelines. Indeed, total oil production from North Dakota has risen from 150,000 barrels per day (BPD) in 2008 to over 1,000,000 BPD in 2014. US railroads carried 434,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013, an increase from only 9,500 carloads in 2008. This is expected to increase to 650,000 carloads in 2014.

The MN PUC is attempting to ensure that the environmentally safest route is chosen for any new pipelines that need to cross the state. Additionally, both the MPCA and the DNR, the state’s agencies charged with protecting the state’s environment and natural resources, have raised very serious environmental and other concerns regarding the Enbridge Route. The Sandpiper, if approved, and a second pipeline to be added will be in the ground a long time, carrying more fracked oil from North Dakota and tar sand oil from Alberta than the Keystone XL.

Although railroads can represent a flexible alternative to pipelines due to their geographically extensive grid-work (the U.S. has 140,000 miles of railroad and only 57,000 miles of crude oil pipelines) their limitations are becoming painfully apparent. Railroads were deregulated in 1980. The federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) is now responsible for the oversight of railroads. At the urging of elected officials in both Minnesota and North Dakota, the STB will soon require more complete data on rail shipping delays. Farmers deserve to get their grain to market. Balancing the transport needs of agriculture, energy, industry and passenger is difficult but necessary.

In the meantime, to ease the bottleneck due to decreased demand as well as near record U.S. oil production, could we consider leaving a little more oil in the ground so that our food can make it to market? The oil will not rot but our food will. Farmers deserve a fair shake.

Jeff Mosner

Park Rapids