BNSF

Stephanie Joyce

The red smokestacks of the Comanche power plant outside of Pueblo, Colorado can be seen from miles away. The plant supplies power to communities along the Front Range, including Denver, and consumes hundreds of tons of coal an hour in the process. That coal arrives in mile-long trains from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and is stockpiled at the plant. Normally, that pile would be a hundred feet tall, according to Xcel Energy fuel supply manager Craig Romer. But right now, it’s less than a third of that.

Hundreds of thousands of tank cars full of crude oil snake across the nation each year, and the number is only increasing.  In the last five years, the number has jumped 14-fold. Along with that, there’s been an increased number of accidents, derailments and spills.

Nat Hamilton/WHYY

In the wake of recent derailments and explosions of crude oil trains, state officials will start receiving information about when those trains are moving through their states. The federal Department of Transportation issued an emergency order in early May, requiring the railroads to share information with states about the routing of any shipments of Bakken crude oil over a million gallons. It goes into effect Saturday.

Arch Coal executives expressed frustration with the nation’s two biggest railroads during a conference call with investors Tuesday. Coal shipments out of the Powder River Basin have been delayed in recent months because of congestion on the BNSF and Union Pacific main lines. Arch Coal CEO John Eaves said it’s hurting the company’s earnings.

Increasing volumes of coal and oil being shipped to the Pacific Northwest are putting pressure on rail capacity in the region, according a new report from the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Despite recent accidents with shipment of crude oil by rail, including a derailment and explosion in North Dakota on Monday, industry analysts say it will continue to be a popular mode of moving oil out of the Bakken.

Trisha Curtis is with the Energy Policy Research Foundation. She says most crude from the Bakken does not travel through Wyoming, but that the state could see a spike in crude-by-rail traffic with new rail loading facilities coming online in the next year.

Coal dust emissions from trains could be cut following a recent ruling by the federal Surface Transportation Board. The Board ruled earlier this month that rail companies can require use of dust suppressants or ‘toppers’ on coal cars.

BNSF was one of the companies pushing for the rule. Spokeswoman Courtney Wallace says coal dust has been shown to foul the tracks and lead to accidents.