A tale of two landscapes that have changed dramatically

A night-and-day parade of brand-new, million-dollar rail cars brings a steady supply of crude oil to the refinery at Delaware City. BY DENNIS FORNEY
February 21, 2014

Two remarkable changes in the Delaware landscape have registered in my mind in the past two years. First, in the mouth of Delaware Bay.

Last spring, or in the previous fall, I looked northward one afternoon from the public beach in Lewes. Gentle chop on the bay, clear skies, nothing dramatic. But something clicked in my mind.

It wasn’t what I was seeing. Rather, what made me stop and reflect was what I wasn’t seeing. For the first time in at least three decades, I noticed no oil tankers, or any kind of ships for that matter, stretching their rodes in the anchorage a few miles offshore. Up until that day, those ships lying at anchor signaled the ebbing and flooding tides for me - a constant, like the breakwaters and the lighthouses. For a moment, I felt like the people in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach who on an April day in 1926 looked up at one moment to see the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse where it had been marking their respective landscapes for at least 150 years; and then, when they looked again, it was gone, finally falling down the face of the great dune eroding beneath its foundation.

The recession that blossomed globally in 2008 and 2009 put a damper on many segments of our economy, but tankers and freighters continued to pass the Delaware capes daily, even if at a reduced rate. But with the economy starting to come around, it made no sense to me that the anchorage would be empty four years after the recession took hold. Oftentimes shipping activity serves as a precursor to economic tides. But in this case, something else was at work.

Second landscape change

I drove to Wilmington a few weeks ago to discuss the Lewes Public Library building campaign with representatives of Delaware’s philanthropic foundations. Crossing the Sen. William V. Roth Jr. Bridge over the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the metallic towers, pipes and bulbs of the Delaware City refinery caught my eye. Part of that landscape as long as I can remember. But two miles up the road, where Route 1 passes closer to the refinery: something dramatically new.

Between the highway and the refinery, a big, broad, uniform curve of shining new railroad tank cars filled what was previously open space. Tankers disappearing from the bay; railroad cars taking their place. Tanker cars filled with crude oil coming from the interior of North America rather than the interior of Asia. Big global shifts.

Delaware Economic Development Office Director Alan Levin said those tank cars, which constitute a rolling pipeline, are brand new and ultra-safe. He said the owners tell him that each car costs in the $2 million range. With that kind of investment and the remarkable shift in the U.S. from a net importer to a net exporter of oil, it’s safe to say those tank cars will be in service for many years to come.

Talking to river pilots whose incomes rely on the volume of shipping on Delaware River and Bay confirms softness in this part of our local economy.

When the Panama Canal widening is finally completed along with the deepening of the Delaware Bay and River shipping channel, volume may once again begin to tick up. In the meantime, though, the landscape changes I’ve described may become more the norm than the exception.

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