December 27, 2014

Lawmakers raise red flags over reduced coal shipments

Rep. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland)

Rep. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland)

A group of northern Wisconsin lawmakers are asking federal officials to look into declining rail shipments of coal to power plants in the region.

Wisconsin has seen a spike in rail traffic statewide in recent months, due largely to crude oil shipments from the Bakken oil fields. State Representative Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) worries that’s coming at the expense of moving other products though. In particular, several power plants have seen their coal deliveries reduced. She says “the railroads are choosing to ship the oil, and are limiting the amount of time they will be supplying power companies with the coal that they need.”

Bewley says that could result in lower stockpiles of coal once the winter months arrive, leaving energy providers short of what they need to meet customer demand. As a result, providers may have to seek more expensive sources of fuel, resulting in higher prices for consumers. That could create a situation similar to last winter’s propane shortage, where supplies were cut off to many areas and consumers either paid record high prices or could not get fuel at all.

Bewley says those concerns prompted her and three other Democratic lawmakers to send a letter to federal regulators this week, asking them to step in. She says “they can make sure that Burlington Northern Santa Fe, particularly here in the state of Wisconsin, is able to distribute its rail cars and engines to satisfy all of the markets, and not simply the one that they choose…which is oil right now.”

In a statement, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway denies that it is prioritizing crude oil customers over any other customers. The company says its “network has had some significant challenges this year, including historic weather conditions and increased growth in volumes across a number of sectors.” It also blames flooding along the Mississippi River earlier this summer for impact operations throughout the month of July.

A BNSF spokeswoman says they are seeing gradual improvements in service for customers along their northern tier as new capacity comes online. They have also been working to hire additional workers and get more locomotives in service on the network this year.