Big Rail Spends More on Denying Climate Change than Big Oil
Monday, December 2, 2019
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.
A new study published by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle has concluded that the rail industry, and not big oil, served as the top funder of the United States climate change denial movement between 1989 and 2015. Titled Networks of Opposition: A Structural Analysis of U.S. Climate Change Countermovement Coalitions 1989 to 2015, the study points to a constellation of 2000 organizations which joined 179 core coalitions and created a tour de force in the arena of climate change, misinformation, and propaganda. In turn, the paper argues this has led to inaction on tackling the climate crisis, in policymaking and in the regulatory sphere.
It has long been known that the fossil fuels industry has spent millions of dollars for decades to fund climate denial. The subject of books like Merchants of Doubt and documentaries like the one with the same namesake and another titled Greedy Lying Bastards, all revealed that to be the case. The rail industry detail, however, is seemingly more surprising. Though generally thought of as a mundane mover of goods, in recent years it has become increasingly clear that the two industries are deeply intertwined.
Here to talk about the rail industry study findings is Justin Mikulka. He is a writer for the website to DeSmog.com, which investigates the climate change denial machine, fossil fuel industry, misinformation. He is also the author of the recently released book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk. Thanks for joining us today, Justin.
JUSTIN MIKULKA: Oh, thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So let’s start, Justin, with a top line finding of this study. You recently wrote an article entitled New Paper Reveals Rail Industry was Leader in Climate Denial Efforts. How much money are we talking about from the rail industry on climate change denial according to the study, and how does that compare to money spent by the fossil fuels industry?
JUSTIN MIKULKA: Well, the quantification of the influence in this study actually wasn’t solely about money and it was mostly, what the author looked at was how involved were these various organizations or companies in all of the climate denial efforts that were ongoing. And so what they really found with this was that the most active organization over the past few decades had been the Association of American Railroads, which is the main lobbying organization of the rail industry. So and to a much greater extent and involvement than the oil and gas industry. So that was, the main takeaway was not from a monetary standpoint so much as, just how involved they were across this large network of the organizations.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now your article, Justin, suggests it’s not surprising that the rail industry has been involved in climate change analysis to the extent that has been discovered. You conclude this by pointing to the recent history of the industry. Please talk to us about that history and in particular, the relationship between the fossil fuels industry, including coal and oil and the rail industry.
JUSTIN MIKULKA: Yeah. So the rail industry’s biggest customer for a very long time has been coal. And so, the U.S. has been a major producer of coal and it’s been moved by rail. And so obviously as coal having become the poster child of the problem with the climate, that when your biggest customer is facing that challenge, it really isn’t surprising knowing that the rail industry got so involved in denying that climate change was an issue because that directly impacted their biggest customer. But beyond coal as well, as you mentioned, over the last decade with the increase in oil production in the U S from fracking and also in Canada with tar sands, a lot of oil has been moving by rail.
So that’s been a growing segment for the rail industry. And we’re also looking at right now. The Trump administration is trying to fast track new legislation or new regulations to allow them to move liquefied natural gas by rail. To something I’ve written about, I think there are incredible risks to this. Just the explosion risk to the communities along the rails for moving this LNG. But so, there’s a long history of rail working with the fossil fuel industry and they’re suffering right now. The rail industry isn’t doing very well, volumes are down and so the potential to move large amounts of liquified natural gas is clearly something they’re very interested in and they’ve been pushing for that regulation to allow LNG by rail for several years now.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And in part two of this interview, Justin, of course we’re going to dig down deeper into the LNG and tar sands aspects of this story. But returning to the rail industry, your article for DeSmog argues that quite apart from its funding of climate denialism, it has been quite vigorous in its anti-regulatory activities. What are some of the examples of that and what, in your view, are the principle dangerous arising from the current practices of carrying oil by rail?
JUSTIN MIKULKA: Well, the rail industry has been around almost as long as the country, and I don’t think most people are aware that they traditionally were one of the most powerful industrial groups and lobbying groups. And something that has been clear across the history has been that they do not like to be regulated. The rail industry likes to run their operations the way they want and they really fight regulation at every level. And there’s a phrase that’s been around for over a hundred years about the rail industry and regulation which is, the rules for rail are written in blood. And that essentially means that unless enough people die, there aren’t going to be any new safety regulations. And so, that’s been the history of what the rail industry has been known for.
And when I started covering the issue of moving oil by rail, it started with the disaster at Lac-Megantic in Canada where 47 people died when an oil train derailed and exploded, and basically burned down the whole downtown of that small Canadian town. So there certainly are real risks regarding moving it, oil by rail that are well known. What I wrote about in my book basically covered the five years from Lac-Megantic to basically where we are now. And a lot of what I covered was the initial push for real safety regulations. Because it’s well known why the trains were exploding that were carrying the fracked Bakken oil and the process of how that worked over the five years. And sadly, how we ended up with no real new safety regulations.
And then now in the current environment with the Trump administration, the Federal Railroad Administration has essentially admitted and put out a statement saying their job as they see it is to remove regulations and to allow the industry to volunteer to self-regulate when it comes to safety. So we’re in a situation right now where the federal regulator has said they see their role as removing regulations, so the risks are still very real. And the rail industry, they’re a very powerful lobby and worked very hard against not only to stop regulations, but they removed several real safety regulations that have been repealed or withdrawn since the Trump administration took over.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And let’s talk a little bit about what is actually happening on the rails in North America today. These trains generally that are carrying oil. First of all, how long are they? Generally, how much oil? Can you quantify on average or approximately how much oil they’re carrying? And in particular, where is this oil coming from, principally?
JUSTIN MIKULKA: So the oil by rail industry really didn’t exist in the U.S. in any way until ten years ago when fracking unleashed a lot of new oil in North Dakota. And there was no way to get it out of North Dakota. So initially they were using trucks, which is a real problem, just with the truck traffic on the road in North Dakota. And so what they did, before they could build pipelines, they very quickly could build rail transloading places to load the oil onto trains in North Dakota where there’s plenty of open land.
And so they started these trains, which are typically a mile long, which is 100 to 120 cars. They can carry several million gallons of oil per train. And these trains are much longer than the average freight train in the U.S. That’s one of the risks; there are no regulations about train length. Most of the oil that’s being moved in the U.S. by rail is coming out of North Dakota. But now with the fracking increasing in places like Utah and Colorado, and certainly in Texas, they’re moving more oil by rail in all of those places. And in Utah they’re actually looking to build a whole new section of rail basically just to move fracked oil.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And lastly, you talked about North Dakota and fracked oil. The Dakota Access Pipeline largely cut back on the need for oil by rail out of the back and as we’ve previously reported on the Real News, is that loss of business putting pressure on the industry, which you talked about at the outset of this interview, to find new sources of business including LNG? Is the building of the Dakota Access part of the story for why we’re looking at this more dangerous forms of transportation of fossil fuels?
JUSTIN MIKULKA: I definitely think that there, that was an economic hit for the industry. The oil by rail business out of North Dakota for several years was very lucrative and a huge growth business for the major rail players. And so they certainly are looking and as I mentioned earlier, the lobbyists for the rail industry have been pushing hard to be able to get LNG on the rails, also in these mile long trains with no new safety regulations. So it certainly is, but a bigger part of that as well is decline in coal being moved by rail has been a real economic hit for the rail industry in the U.S.
And so they certainly are looking for ways to fill that missing volume. And we have so much natural gas in this country right now and it’s very cheap, and they’re trying to export it all. And so, once again, another partnership between the fossil fuel industry and the rail industry, which clearly is going to be catastrophic for the climate. We just can’t be exporting all this natural gas to burn.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, that’s it for now. We’re going to explore more deeply, as I’ve indicated, the question of transportation of LNG and Alberta tar sands bitumen in part two of this interview. For the time being, thank you very much for joining us on the Real News today, Justin.
JUSTIN MIKULKA: Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting from Montreal, Canada.