Dangerous cargo’s, including crude oil, are being transported by rail around the U.S. This last week an oil train derailed in a remote part of Eastern Montana, and while it fortunately didn’t go boom it could have done so. A few months ago another oil train derailed near Galena Illinois, and that one did go boom. The shipment of hazardous goods by rail lines that often go through crowded urban areas is clearly a situation worthy of national attention and concern.
Activists and officials across the country are highly concerned about the situation, as is their right. I, myself, am concerned not just for the rail safety issue – when one of these trains goes boom it creates environmental havoc – but because it’s a symptom of the greater issue of the continued addiction to fossil fuels. As I wrote the other day, I believe the focus should be on erasing the use of fossil fuels from our lifestyle, and not the immediate problem of oil train safety.
Turns out that the FBI, therefore, believes I’m an environmental extremist one step shy of making bombs and trying to disrupt oil train traffic. That is, me and everyone else who shares information over social networks about oil train risks and/or advocates for the end of fossil fuel consumption.
The latter had found a document in which the Association of American Railroads was advocating against disclosure of oil train routes – partly because of business competitiveness – partly because of the potential for terrorism attacks against oil trains. As proof they attached an FBI memo giving a warning of the possibility that environmental extremists will attack oil trains. The FBI said there was “no specific information to indicate environmental extremists are planning or will target railways used to transport crude or shale oil.” Instead the FBI warning as written is more like a hunch that “Criminal acts may occur and violate federal law if extremists perceive low-level criminal actions are effective.”
The FBI memo goes on to describe environmental extremists – I’ve pasted the text above, and you can read the full document on this site.
Yes, the FBI’s job is to worry about potential criminal acts. Clearly some people want to improve the world around us by committing criminal acts. Someone actively working on bomb making and studying security vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure like rail lines – they’re the kind of person the FBI should be concerned about.
But posting stuff on social media? The definition “The use of social media platforms … to track routes or share targeted rails or facilities” is pretty broad. While it includes the bomb makers who would disrupt oil train traffic, it also includes more benign folk like the trainspotters.
Turns out there’s a book, Trainspotting, that had been made into a movie, that I’m pretty sure has almost nothing to do with the Trainspotting hobby. Trainspotting hobbyists go to extreme lengths to study everything they can about trains and rail systems, and they’ll even sit by rail lines just to watch the trains go by. They even take movies for upload to youtube.
A quick search on youtube for “oil train” turns up lots of videos of oil trains rolling by. One of these people, the youtube account “trainutjob“, has posted what looks like a couple hundred videos over at least five years. While some of his videos show oil trains it’s clear he’s a little, um, nutso excited about trains of all kinds.
I’ve reposted a few oil train videos on this site, including a video of the Lac Megantic oil train explosion two years ago. These were all found on social media (youtube), and once I’m done with this post I’ll be sharing it to social media. By the FBI definition, I would be an environmental extremist for committing these acts.
Let’s get back to the Association of American Railroads document, however. It was filed as a comment to Docket No FRA 2014–0011–N–13, which concerns proposed “information collection activities” by the Federal Railroad Administration related to oil train traffic.
The ARRA is an industry lobbying group, and the document does its best to resist the FRA information collection activity. The big reason given by the ARRA is the Terrorism bugaboo. Since September 2001 the Terrorism threat has been used as a handy shortcut for getting all kinds of things done.
One problem is the definition of Terrorism is overly broad. The FBI definition of environmental extremists here is an example. It’s not extremism to believe “the use of fossil fuels contributes to the destruction of our environment” because it plainly does, and there is tons and tons of evidence to support that belief. Likewise it’s not extremism to believe “transport of crude oil creates the potential for environmental hazardous train derailments and oil spills,” because again there is tons of evidence to support that belief. The US rail system has suffered from years of neglect, resulting in regular train derailments, some of which are carrying crude oil, and usually derailed crude oil trains blow up with massively negative result.
The FBI memo literally says “Environmental extremists believe the use of fossil fuels contributes to the destruction of our environment and may believe that transport of crude oil creates the potential for environmental hazardous train derailments and oil spills.” Later in the memo it also says environmental extremists do things like make bombs or post information about oil train routes online.
Let’s be clear – the FBI is casting a very broad net. Going by this definition the FBI’s net would sweep up a lot of people doing innocent things like writing blog posts about the clear and obvious dangers of fossil fuels, and the transportation of crude oil by train.
And, oh-by-the-way, let’s not lose sight of the other message of the ARRA letter. They’re strongly against disclosing the routes of oil trains to the rail authority. Yes they have a few good points in their favor – business competitiveness does require a bit of secrecy. But, clearly, obviously, a risky situation exists because of oil shipments by rail. The people living near the rail lines need to know the danger rolling by their back yards.
Oil trains are derailing pretty regularly. The US Department of Transportation believes there will be 15 oil train derailments in 2015 and over 200 by 2034. The issue is the huge growth in oil production is coupled with a huge growth in shipping crude oil by rail.
This is a serious risk – and it seems the FBI wants to label any of us who take that risk seriously as an environmental extremist.
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