The Problem with Oil and Trains (part 1)

There are problems arising with oil and trains.

Oil train

Here is a fact: more oil was spilled from trains in the US in 2013 than in the past 38 years combined (HuffPost). 1.15 million gallons were reported spilled in 2013, and only 800,000 gallons reported spilled the previous 38 years (from 1975 to 2012).

There have been two train derailments in my home state alone in 2014 already, one near Pittsburgh and one in Philadelphia.

Most of the oil from the reported spills comes from the Baaken oil field in North Dakota and the surrounding area.

Here is another fact: these derailments don’t only spill oil into communities and rivers, but result in death like the one in Quebec last June which killed 47 people along with spilling about 1 million gallons. Since this spill was in Canada, it does not count toward the total count, but if it did, the spill-gallon count would be doubled.

Many have been pointing fingers in an attempt to fix the problem. Is the problem over-loaded cars and an abundance of shipments? Or perhaps the tank cars aren’t up to safety code. That could be the cause, as it was in the 2010 BP oil spill.

If it were up to me to guess, I would say it’s because crude oil production has gone up in recent years. That paired with old equipment and more trains on the rails seems like the problem.

Crude oil production has dipped before, but been rising since 2008 and is projected to continue to do so, according to the Association of American Railroads.

However, how are we going to fix this? Since the Keystone XL Pipeline has had issues with development thus far (including a recent Nebraska court ruling further hindering development), more oil is likely to hit the rails, as that is one of the only plausible ways to move oil from the West to the East.

Last week, the Missoulian reported that an emergency order was passed “requiring more stringent testing of crude oil before shipment by rail to determine how susceptible the cargo is to explosion or fire.” This is due to the increased number of oil train explosions, namely in response to the oil train derailment/explosion in Quebec last summer (which polluted and killed).

Stay tuned for part 2 on Thursday: how these oil train derailments could harm Glacier National Park and my new state, Montana.

4 thoughts on “The Problem with Oil and Trains (part 1)

  1. Hi, good exploratory thoughts here, and good links and documentation! But it misses the 800-pound gorilla of how dangerous Bakken Shale oil and gas actually is. Federal regulators issued the emergency order for a very specific reason. It’s not just that the quantity of oil shipped by rail has gone up, although it has. It’s that the fracked Bakken Shale oil is more flammable, more explosive, and likely more corrosive as well, which is why it has BLOWN UP, not just derailed, 5 times in 7 months (last June – December 2013), killing 47 people, incinerating 15 acres of downtown Lac-Megantic, spilling into Alabama wetlands, and causing people to be evacuated in a FIVE MILE RADIUS of the massive 300-foot-tall fireball in Casselton, North Dakota, on December 30th 2013.

    Anyone who has watched the 29-second Youtube video of that Casselton fireball knows that this is no ordinary crude oil. Please watch.

    That 29-second video helps everyone understand the real risks to life and limb here. It’s more like a small Hiroshima bomb than an ordinary crude oil fire. You really have to see it to believe it.

    The scientists over at PHMSA have been testing the oil and have found out that it is so full of gas — unlike other types of “traditional” crude — that it must be re-classified as a gas, not as an ordinary liquid crude. That gas, methane, hexane, ethane, propane and butane in different mixes, is mixed in with the fracked Bakken Shale crude when it comes up from being fracked deep in the shale layer.

    Then with temperature changes, barometric pressure changes and other environmental conditions, it turns from liquid to gas INSIDE THE RAIL CAR, becoming so dangerous that any static spark can cause an explosion and fire.

    Scientists and engineers do not yet know whether the derailments are causing explosions and fires, or the explosions and fires are actually causing the derailments. This level of danger, and this level of uncertainty, is unprecedented. What we DO know is that the DOT-111 rail cars are absolutely unsafe to carry this dangerously explosive fuel. Yet, day after day, rural and urban populations alike are being exposed to this dangerous fuel inside these famously unsafe old rail cars — why? Because these fabulously rich industries are more committed to the return on investment, i.e. their profit margin, than they are committed to safety.

    If they were committed to safety they would ban every single DOT 111 car from carrying Bakken Shale oil and gas on the rails right now. The simple fact is that they will not act without concerted expression of public outrage. But the public is numb, not used to this level of endangerment, slow to understand and comprehend the level of endangerment, and slow to act. Please press NTSB, DOT, PHMSA and FRA immediately, through your local elected officials and through direct phone calls to each agency, to ban DOT-111 cars from carrying the Bakken Shale oil and gas on the tracks — right now– not in ten months or ten years.

    Meanwhile, the Bakken Shale flaring is causing massive climate change and the “boom” level of extraction in a huge rush makes absolutely no sense. Anything we can do to slow it down is to the benefit of all, especially the First Nations people and other local residents who have already been victimized by having their water, air, and land polluted, animals harmed and daily lives turned upside down by the shale oil boom in the Bakken. Protect future generations from massive climate change; protect local residents’ health and well-being; protect residents all along the tracks, and push back to stop one more DOT-111 rail car carrying this explosive, deadly fuel. That’s a win-win-win-win-win; it even creates jobs as newer and safer rail cars would certainly be built as a result of this public outcry!!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! I have a second post going up on Thursday that delves into more of these issues, but I will be sure to look at that video. Again, thanks! And thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks Abbey, looking forward to your next post. The more people who spend time, energy and thoughtfulness on this issue, the better, because so much is at risk and at stake. And, yes, it’s a 29-second video and quiet, so people can watch it anytime and anywhere to grasp the enormity of the Bakken Shale oil problem. I’ll be putting up another post soon at linking to another factor: the US EIA now says the shale oil boom will be over in a decade. It could be that industry insiders know this and that is why they are rushing so insanely to get it all out of the ground now “no matter what” — no matter the flaring in North Dakota and other parts of the Bakken Shale region; no matter the over the top risks to human life and the environment from oil train disasters. Only consistent, focused public outcry can and will make a difference.

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