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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Following In Washington's Footsteps, Montana Releases Crude Oil Rail Routes

Roy Luck
Flickr - Creative Commons
A BNSF train outside of Houston, Texas. As a company, BNSF ships large ammounts of Bakken crude oil.

A dozen or more trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken region are moving across northern Montana every week, skirting the edge of Glacier National Park. More trains - far fewer in number - pass through populated regions farther south.

Governor Steve Bullock has released the route information, making Montana the latest state, after Washington, to buck railroads’ requests to keep the information out of public hands.

Some rail carriers have been working out deals with states to withhold the data from the public. But, Montana said state open records laws require route information be released in their state. Andy Huff, the Chief Legal Counsel in the Montana Governor’s office pointed to the state’s constitution, which has a very strong provision regarding the public’s right to know.

“(It) is a constitutional right for Montanans and people in Montana to examine government documents,” he said. “And the only way we can prevent the public from viewing documents is if there’s a privacy interest that outweighs the public right to know.”

The new crude oil disclosure rules come from the Federal Department of Transportation. Trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota and Montana now have to tell states when and where those trains are rolling through. Bakken oil is believed to be more volatile than oil from other regions.

The lack of public knowledge about the crude shipments has led to concern among many, like Derf Johnson, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Montana Environmental Information Center.

“There’s a rail line right in the middle of downtown Billings. There’s one right in the middle of downtown Missoula, some of our biggest towns in Montana,” Johnson said. “The devastation that could be caused if something were to go wrong, it’s incredibly concerning.”

An oil train explosion in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec killed almost fifty people in summer 2013. This past April, hundreds were evacuated from downtown Lynchburg, Virginia after another fiery crash. The federal government wants first responders and emergency planners to know about these trains so they can be prepared for a worst case scenario. Railroad companies have been arguing that’s all who should know. Several states, like Wyoming and Colorado, have agreed with the railroads and said they will not publicly release the data.

According to Inside Energy data analysis, the rail company BNSF ships by far the most Bakken crude on its trains - 80 percent in fact. BNSF has said the release of this information harms their competitiveness and could compromise security.

Montana's Andy Huff said they asked the Federal Railroad Administration about the companies’ concerns.

“They told us no, that it wasn’t sensitive security information,” he said.

In a statement, BNSF said they will continue to supply the route information to state agencies. What happens then is apparently up to the states.

Environmentalist Derf Johnson is happy the public will have this information, but he hopes more steps are taken soon, such as increasing safety standards surrounding oil trains, increasing track inspections, and lowering speed limits.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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