Sunday, July 13, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

UPDATED: Flirting with disaster?

More than 5 million barrels of crude oil will pass through Center City every month -- is that safe?

UPDATED: Flirting with disaster?

UPDATE: The website Hidden City Philadelphia, coincidentally, today published a remarkable (and long) piece on both the history of oil refining here and, more importantly, some of the risks of the current boom -- check it out here.

There's no doubt that some short-term positives can be traced to the unexpected boom in American oil and gas boom. It's created jobs -- especially North Dakota -- and the declining U.S. need for foreign oil makes the world a safer place (you'd think "morality" would play a role, too, but apparently not). But what about the costs? How much harm are we doing to the planet by obsessing on greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels while we ignore the need for renewable energy?  (Not a pipe dream...Germany's doing it right this second.) And what are the risks of moving so much oil around? They are many:

AT 1:14 A.M. JULY 6, a warm Saturday morning, a runaway train carrying 35,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota careened into the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic.

The wreck sent what one witness called "a tsunami of fire" into a packed nightclub, killing 47 people, five of whom were so badly incinerated that no trace of them could be found.

And the shock waves were felt in Philadelphia, more than 500 miles away.

Just three months earlier, South Philly's former Sunoco refinery, rebranded as Philadelphia Energy Solutions, had begun accepting more-than-a-mile-long trains, each with more than 100 of the same model tanker car that went to Lac-Megantic, each filled with the same North Dakota crude.

The new refinery owners have plans to ship roughly 5 million barrels of crude oil every month, right through the heart of Center City along the Schuylkill.

As Dustin Hoffman was famously asked in the film "Marathon Man": "Is it safe?" Yes and no. On one hand, the bizarre tragi-comedy of errors that caused the Quebec disaster surely could not happen here, where the trains run on more highly rated tracks at fairly slow speeds. On the other hand, it wasn't that long ago that our supposedly dependable infrastructure failed us just across the river in Paulsboro, N.J. -- leading to a major toxic rail spill. There is only sure way to ensure safety when it comes to oil: Find solutions that keep most of it buried under the ground.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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