Wednesday, December 03, 2014

'Bakken Over' Environmental Safety? Christie Quietly Backs Big Oil in NJ

Rail cars transporting highly explosive Bakken crude oil through New Jersey

Even though I don't necessarily agree with most of his policy stances, I have to give New Jersey Governor Chris Christie credit for his political savvy and willingness to exploit a public appearance to try and control media coverage.

A day after an NJTV news report reported that NJ's Division of Environmental Protection (DEP) had quietly decided to permit an additional 300 train cars of highly-combustible Bakken crude oil to pass through densely populated residential areas in Bergen County each week, Christie announced he was making his fourth trip since June to Camden, NJ to visit Camden High School.

As Jason Laday of the South Jersey Times reported on Monday, Christie visited Camden twice in June then once back in September to tout the metro division of the Camden County Police for their reduction in violent crime in the troubled New Jersey city. 

Now I'm not going to fault a New Jersey governor for bringing some positive media coverage to Camden, but the timing of his announced visit struck me as suspiciously opportune.

By using a sudden appearance at Camden High School to overshadow reports about the DEP decision to allow even more potentially dangerous train cars carrying highly combustible crude oil taken from the Bakken oil shelf in North Dakota to travel through heavily populated areas of Bergen County, Christie appears to be sticking two prize feathers in his presidential candidate hat at one time.  

Camden Mayor Dana Redd with Gov. Chris Christie
On one hand, he can position himself as the governor who knows how to turn troubled urban cities like Camden around.

On the other (more importantly for Republicans) hand, he can satisfy the "drill baby drill" conservatives who equate increased domestic oil production with the loose concept of "energy independence" - which translates to Koch brothers money in his presidential coffers alongside the coin of other large petrochemical producers as well.

Christie also gets to boost his pro-fossil fuels candidate-cred by having the state's environmental agency (DEP) grant a request to boost the amount of Bakken crude that travels through New Jersey on the way to coastal ports where it can be offloaded onto tankers and shipped anywhere in the world.

Why all the fuss about Bakken crude oil?

Remember the horrific Canadian rail disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013?

On that day a 74-car freight train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed (as a result of careless human error) creating an explosion with a blast radius of almost a mile that killed forty-seven people and destroyed over 30 buildings - destroying half the town.

Back on November 9th, even as Governor Christie was appearing on television to gloat about the Republican electoral victories, local Teaneck, NJ residents were protesting the fact that CSX rail transports some 30 million gallons of Bakken crude each week along tracks that snake through heavily populated residential areas in Bergen County.

As local Teaneck resident and activist Art Vasky noted in a article (see link above), the 2013 municipal 'Resident Preparedness Guide For Emergencies' doesn't even mention the presence of freight lines in the town.

Some might argue that DEP Commissioner Bob Martin is responsible, not Christie. But as the scandal surrounding the highly politicized distribution of Hurricane Sandy aid in NJ demonstrated, it's that nothing of any significance in terms of policy or funding happens without Christie's approval.

The DEP in NJ doesn't even require the public disclosure of details about hazardous material transport over rail.

The story only came out because the state of New York released information about the volume of Bakken crude shipped from North Dakota through Albany, NY that winds its way down CSX freight tracks through Rockland County, NY through Bergen County, NJ on it's way to the Buckeye Partners terminal in Perth Amboy, NJ - a massive refining facility owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions.

Buckeye Partners terminal facility on the Arthur Kill in Perth Amboy, NJ
The Buckeye terminal located on several hundred acres (pictured left) is a major east coast gateway for oil tankers to ship Bakken crude transported via rail overseas.

The DEP granted Buckeye Partner's request to transport an additional 300 train cars of Bakken crude through NJ; remember, the disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec was 74 train cars. 

As the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains points out, the lack of public transparency regarding the volume, frequency and routes of trains carrying Bakken crude, coupled with the 78,000 rail tanker cars nationwide that the federal government has mandated must be replaced with safer and more modern designed double-lined tank cars within two years, creates an unacceptable risk for the thousands of residents in New Jersey who live along CSX freight tracks.

Protesters who've witnessed CSX trains carrying Bakken crude oil note that many of the tank cars running through Bergen County are the rusted out older 'DOT 111' version without the safety features mandated by the federal government.

The DEP's decision to allow Buckeye Partners to transport more light Bakken crude via rail through New Jersey also opens the door to transporting the much heavier Canadian Tar Sands oil over rail.

As an August, 2014 article by Justin Mikulka on the DeSmogBlog reports, many energy company and rail executives aren't crying over the Keystone XL pipeline (like reactionary Republicans are) because it's actually much cheaper and more efficient to transport the heavier Canadian Tar Sands oil by transporting it on heated rail cars that make it much easier to pump the viscous sludge out of the train cars and onto oil tankers.

So the DEP decision has huge ramifications that stretch well beyond the state of New Jersey.  

In the months leading up to last month's November elections, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gleefully basked in the glow of national media headlines. And for good reason.

Christie at a Republican Governor's Association
meeting alongside Niki Haley and Mike Pence
As he traipsed back and forth across the country on behalf of the Republican Governor's Association raising money for the GOP and stumping for various Republican candidates, Christie was carefully raising his own profile as a 2016 presidential candidate. 

And also doing his best to remain the invisible man in the Bridge Gate controversy.

If you watched him smugly deflecting credit for the Republican sweep in any of his post-election television interview clips, he came off as less the governor of NJ than a preening debutante who'd emerged from the ball with a full dance-card, a pocket full of phone numbers and a few potential political suitors.

He seemed to be courting everyone but the people of the state that elected him to the governor's mansion; he won his 2nd term by a landslide so maybe he figures he doesn't need to court New Jersey folk anymore?

Aside from his occasional appearances at obviously-staged "town meetings" held before handpicked crowds of pre-screened sympathetic New Jersey supporters where he strutted around with a mic taking scripted soft-ball questions, Christie was pretty much the invisible man in the Garden State in late summer and early fall.

By appearing at Camden High School today, Christie is doing his best to remain the invisible man in the DEP's decision to transport over 30 million gallons of Bakken crude a week through areas where NJ citizens live, work and go to school. 

Perhaps the Keystone XL pipeline is just a ruse to keep people distracted by the fact that Republicans like Chris Christie are quietly paving the path to allow that same Canadian Tar Sands oil to travel right next to people's back yards on rail cars.

In the end, who's getting railroaded?

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