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A remarkable transformation is underway in western North Dakota, where an oil boom is changing the state's fortunes and leaving once-sleepy towns bursting at the seams. In a series of stories, NPR is exploring the economic, social and environmental demands of this modern-day gold rush.

North Dakota's oil boom isn't just about oil; a lot of natural gas comes out of the ground at the same time. But there's a problem with that: The state doesn't have the pipelines needed to transport all of that gas to market. There's also no place to store it.

Wyden, Merkley Take Railroads To Task Over Oil Train Safety

Jan 27, 2014

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley asked railroad company executives Friday to address mounting concerns about oil train safety in Oregon.

Following several oil train derailments and related emergencies in the past six months, the senators gathered in Portland with public officials officials and rail industry representatives.

SEATTLE -- Washington lawmakers took up a proposal Wednesday to require more transparency from companies that transport oil through the state.

The hearing on House Bill 2347 played out before a packed committee room in Olympia. The new bill would require oil companies to file weekly reports with the state Department of Ecology detailing how much oil is being transported, what kind of oil it is, how it’s being moved and what route it’s traveling through the state.

Few Railcars Carrying Flammable Oil Get Inspected

Jan 14, 2014
oil train, transportation
Flickr Photo/Russ Allison Loar (CC BY NC ND 2.0)/https://flic.kr/p/aqtNAn

As we researched a recent story about train shipments of oil, we asked Washington and Oregon officials: How many of the trains coming through the Northwest are inspected?

Transportation Safety Board of Canada

The oil-by-rail boom is underway, and with that, several high-profile, fiery derailments.  

But state officials don't have the information they need to prepare for an oil train mishap because railroad and oil companies are not required to disclose much on shipments or response strategies.

Flickr Photo/Roy Luck

An alert, issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday said that the crude oil coming out of the Bakken formation of North Dakota poses a “significant risk” because it is more flammable than traditional heavy crude.

A massive load of oil equipment is on its way to Canada, along a winding route that began near Hermiston, in northeast Oregon. 

The first of three hulking pieces of oil equipment, known as “megaloads,” is expected to start its slow, winding journey through eastern Oregon Monday.

Flickr Photo/RVWithTito

On Thursday morning Shell Oil will be meeting with officials from a county in Washington state to talk about plans to build a rail extension to deliver oil from North Dakota to its refinery near Puget Sound.

Oil companies still may find a way to move huge, so-called “megaloads” through a scenic corridor in Idaho, once traveled by Lewis and Clark. But for now at least, opponents of the extra-large shipments are hoping government red tape has closed that option.

Flickr Photo/WSDOT

UPDATE 7/10/13, 4:09 p.m. PT: The Associated Press is reporting that the death toll for the Quebec train crash that rocked a small town over the weekend has reached 50. Canadian officials have declared that the missing people in the explosion are now presumed dead.

The tragedy has given the commissioners of the Port of Vancouver in Washington pause as they consider a proposal for a terminal to move oil from trains onto ships.

Flickr Photo/Transportation Safety Board of Canada (CC-BY-NC-ND)

The weekend’s deadly oil-train derailment and explosion in the Canadian province of Quebec has raised concerns in the Pacific Northwest, where there are several proposals to increase the amount of oil transported into to the region by train.

By Monday afternoon the confirmed death toll had reached 13, with 50 people still missing after Saturday’s derailment of more than 70 tanker cars. They were filled with oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota — home of the largest oil boom in recent US history.

TJ Guiton

Shell Oil Co. had to postpone its Arctic drilling until 2014 after one of its oil rigs ran aground off the Alaska coast this winter, but Shell’s efforts to open a new frontier of oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean continue in Puget Sound.

The oil giant passed a key test with federal regulators in March in the waters off Anacortes, Wash., north of Seattle.

Flickr/Roy.Luck

The Port of Grays Harbor has announced an agreement to lease property for a crude oil unloading and storage facility. The oil would arrive by train and then be loaded on to barges bound for refineries on the West Coast.

KUOW/John Ryan

The Shell Oil Co. refinery in Anacortes, Wash., sprang a leak last week. Shell quickly shut down the equipment that was boiling oil to make gasoline, but the shutdown led to a release of toxic gases.

Is It Time To End Oil Subsidies?

Mar 21, 2013
Flickr Photo/Gage Skidmore

While policymakers debate the government’s budget, the Brookings Institute, a private nonprofit research organization, decided to host their own brainstorming session. They asked experts from all different fields to submit ideas for responsible deficit reduction.

One expert, Harvard professor Joseph Aldy, drafted a proposal eliminating oil and gas tax subsidies. A move Aldy estimates would save the US government $41 billion over 10 years.

ABERDEEN, Wash. – The Northwest is on the verge of becoming a gateway for crude oil. Three different developers have plans to use docks on Grays Harbor, Washington to transfer crude oil from trains to ships. Other projects are getting off the ground in Tacoma, Vancouver, B.C. and on the lower Columbia River.

There was a huge turnout Wednesday night at an introductory public workshop in Aberdeen, Washington. The response indicates crude-by-rail may be the region’s next big environmental controversy.

Energy expert Amory Lovins says the United States can replace all oil and coal by the year 2050, without nuclear power, new federal taxes or subsidies, or new inventions. At the same time, we can grow the US economy by 158 percent.

Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis / US Coast Guard

UPDATE: The Kulluk ran aground late Monday night, with 150,000 gallons of diesel and oil on board.

A floating oil rig that was abandoned on Saturday in heavy seas in the Gulf of Alaska is being towed away from land — a second time.

Oil Rig Adrift In Alaska

Dec 31, 2012
Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis / US Coast Guard

An oil rig that was on its way to a Seattle shipyard from Alaska went adrift in the Gulf of Alaska on Sunday. John Ryan told Ross Reynolds about it on The Conversation.


Jeff Rubin was a high-flying economist at a major Canadian investment bank, until he decided to write a book about how high oil prices were going to flatten the global economy.  Ross Reynolds talks Jeff Rubin about the steadily mounting demand for cheap oil in a world of dwindling supply.

Katie Campbell

As regulators in the region weigh the potential impacts of trains full of coal moving along the Columbia River and the shores of Puget Sound, trainloads of oil are quietly on the move. There are billions of barrels of oil in the Bakken shale formation – located in North Dakota and Montana mainly. And some of that oil is now making its way to refineries in Puget Sound.

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