As more people come to realize their state and national political leaders are mere puppets of the oil industry, they are looking to their local government to protect them from the dangers of fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and refining. We think most crude oil is transported by pipelines, but in fact a great deal is shipped by rail. With the United States poised to become the largest oil exporter in the world thanks to a boom in fracking, rail shipments will soon increase dramatically.
As the amount of oil shipped by rail increased as the result of the fracking boom that started a decade ago, so did derailments, fires, and explosions along rail lines. In 2013, the tiny town of Lac Mégantic in the province of Quebec was leveled by a fire and explosion that killed 47 inhabitants. That’s when people became aware of the rolling death traps travelling through their neighborhoods.
But the railroads are regulated by the federal government. With the oil industry calling the shots in Washington, tighter safety regulations for rail shipments never got much traction. Attempts to force stricter safety standards by local communities were rebuffed by the courts. Under the US Constitution, federal law is supreme. But what if federal officials refuse to protect the citizens?
Keisha Allen lives in South Baltimore. The oil trains rumble through her neighborhood 24 hours a day. She once thought the oil in all those tank cars was inert until tales of exploding tank cars began to fill the news. “The thing that bothers us the most is the fact that it is volatile,” she tells ThinkProgress. “You trust your government enough to protect you, and that’s not what was happening.”
Unable to stop the trains, Allen and other concerned citizens developed a different strategy. Local communities still have control over local land use policies. What if the city simply banned companies from building any more oil storage facilities and export terminals? Their plan was presented to the Baltimore city council, which voted to approve it on Monday, March 12. All that remains is for the mayor to approve the city council’s action for the ban to go into effect.
“This bill is a common sense step to protect the communities of Baltimore most at risk from transport of crude oil and to limit the expansion of climate-polluting fossil fuels,” Leah Kelly, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement after the bill passed. “We don’t need more of these potentially hazardous crude oil shipment facilities in the city.”
The activists in Baltimore adopted a tactic first used by environmentalists in Portland, Oregon, to limit the expansion of crude oil infrastructure in that city. The fossil fuel industry, and specifically the Koch Brothers, will strike back, as they always do, by recruiting candidates who are willing to trade their votes for cash or other valuable consideration. Environmentalists will need to be constantly vigilant to protect the gains they have made.
The industry will not rest and it has virtually unlimited amounts of money to spend to accomplish its nefarious goals. In the era of checkbook democracy initiated by the disastrous Citizens United ruling, America is for sale to the highest bidder and there are few bidders with deeper pockets than fossil fuel companies. The fracking boom continues and the industry will be frantic to find more ways to get their deadly cargo to foreign markets. A battle may have been won, but the war is far from over.