The Oil Train Boom. Literally.

February 26, 2014

by Crane-Station

Westbound oil train, Essex MT
Image by Roy Luck, Creative Commons, flickr: Westbound oil train, Essex MT

The ‘shale revolution’ is here, along with an astonishing increase in rail carloads of crude oil in transport to refineries. In 2009, 9500 carloads of crude oil originated on US Class I Railroads. In 2013, that number increased, to an estimated 400,000 carloads.

In rail transport, the U.S. DOT-111 tank car, also known as the CTC-111A in Canada, is a type of non-pressure tank car in common use in North America. Up to 80% of the Canadian fleet, and 69% of U.S. rail tank cars are DOT-111 type. Hydraulic fracturing of new wells in the shale oil fields in the interior of North America has rapidly increased the use of DOT-111 cars to transport crude oil to existing refineries along the coasts. BNSF plans to buy 5,000 next-generation tank cars for transporting crude oil.

On July 6, 2013, an unattended 74-car freight train carrying Bakken formation crude oil in Lac-Mégantic derailed and ran away , resulting in the fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. Lac-Mégantic is located in the Eastern Townships of the Canadian province of Quebec. Forty-two people were confirmed dead with 5 more missing and presumed dead. People were seated in a bar at 1 AM, enjoying good company when suddenly faced with a runaway exploding train. More than 30 buildings in the town’s center, roughly half of the downtown area, were destroyed.

In November 2013, in Aliceville, Pickens County, Alabama, a Genesee & Wyoming company was the carrier for a 90-car train, of which 20 derailed and exploded. The train originated in Amory, Mississippi and was scheduled for a pipeline terminal in Walnut Hill, Florida that is owned by Genesis Energy. The final destination for the shipment was to have been the Shell Oil refinery in Mobile, Alabama. The accident happened in a depopulated wetlands area. The Institute for Southern Studies reports cleanup for the Alabama oil train wreck was met with official neglect.

On December 30, 2013, an oil train explosion occurred in Casselton, North Dakota causing the town to be evacuated. The BNSF train was more than 100 cars and 1.6km long, of which at least 10 cars were destroyed. Reports were that another train carrying grain derailed first, causing the adjacent Bakken formation cars to derail. Three days later, the USDOT PHMSA wrote that “Recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. Casselton mayor Ed McConnell, acknowledging that the town “dodged a bullet”, publicly called on the federal government to review the dangers and urged lawmakers to consider pipelines as a safer option.

On January 16, 2014, the US Department of Transportation (DOT), the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the American Petroleum Institute (API), and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) met, for a Call to Action on Rail Safety Meeting. On January 22, the US Secretary of Transportation followed up with a letter to attendees, sharing an apparent epiphany that massively understated the obvious:

It is up to all of us to ensure that the crude oil, whether from North Dakota or elsewhere, is transported safely and securely with no adverse impact to Americans or their property.

While the American Association of Railroads points out that any spill via rail, no matter how miniscule, must be reported, it is notable that oil trains spilled more crude last year than in the previous 38 years combined. The AAR is quick to point out that rail transport is actually safer than pipeline transport:

Based on U.S. DOT data, the crude oil “spill rate” for railroads from 2002-2012 was an estimated 2.2 gallons per million ton-miles, compared with an estimated 6.3 for pipelines.

Not surprisingly, pipeline supporters are using the rail mishaps to sway support to pipeline transport (namely Keystone XL), and rail transport supporters argue the reverse, citing hundreds of unreported pipeline spills in North Dakota, as well as reported ones, like the Tesoro 825,200 gallon fracked oil spill in North Dakota.

Yesterday, February 25, federal regulators say “they’ve issued an emergency order requiring tests of crude oil before shipment by rail in response to a string of train explosions and fires since last summer. The Federal Railroad Administration said Tuesday it also is prohibiting shipping oil using the least-protective packing requirements.”

Are the regulating agencies interested in doing anything meaningful, or are they hostages to industry, getting together every once in a while, to issue a proclamation about something, giving the appearance of action?

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