Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Recent Oil Train Explosion Underscores the Risks of Transporting Fossil Fuels by Rail

The crash of another oil train illustrates yet again why it is not safe to transport fossil fuels by rail. On Monday February 16 a train carrying more than 3 million gallons of Bakken crude oil derailed near Mount Carbon, West Virginia resulting in a massive explosion and ongoing fire. The wreck forced the evacuation of two towns and threatens the local water supply. At least one rail car is known to have fallen into the Kanawha River.

West Virginia is no stranger to fossil fuel disasters. There was an oil train wreck in Lynchburg Virginia last year and several recent coal industry related spills. The Mount Carbon oil train disaster was just 30 miles from the site of a coal industry spill that leaked 10,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM into the Elk River.

The West Virginia accident is the second major derailment in three days in North America. On Valentines Day a CNR train detailed, exploded and spilled in northern Ontario. All of these oil train disasters take place in the context of the tragic destruction of the town of Lac Megantic in Quebec. The 2013 inferno killed 47 people and decimated the small town.

These are but a few of the many oil trains explosions in the last couple of years others have occurred in North Dakota, Alabama, and New Brunswick, and Alberta.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed new rules for improving rail safety standards including upgraded train tank cars.  However, the dangers of oil trains may not be so easily addressed by replacing the old DOT-11 tanker cars. The recent oil train explosions have occurred using the new upgraded CPC 1232 tanker cars.

When we review the data over the last five decades a troubling picture emerges. More oil has been spilled from oil trains in the last couple of years than in the previous half century. Both the amount of oil being shipped by rail and the resultant damage appear to be trending in a disturbing direction. As of May 2014, train wrecks caused $10 million in damage, that is almost three times the costs of 2013.

In 2008 there were 9,500 rail-carloads of crude moved through the US. In 2013 that number climbed to 415,000 rail-carloads. From 1975 to 2012, US railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. In 2013 alone more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil were spilled. At any given moment there are now almost 10 million barrels of oil moving on rail lines in North America.

In addition to being a serious material risk, runaway oil trains are a metaphor for our current climate trajectory. This view is expressed in a report titled Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude By Rail in North America.

"Our analysis shows just how out of control the oil industry is in North America today. Regulators are unable to keep up with the industry’s expansion-at-any-cost mentality, and public safety is playing second fiddle to industry profits,” said Lorne Stockman, Research Director of Oil Change International and author of the report. “This is what the 'All of the Above Energy Strategy' looks like – a runaway train headed straight for North American communities.”

The report states that the amount of oil transported by rail is expected to significantly increase. "If all the operating, expanding, under construction, and planned terminals were utilized to full capacity, it would entail some 675 trains with 100 cars each, carrying a total of around 45 million barrels of oil through North American communities every day."

The increased oil train traffic make it is a statistical certainty that these trains are going to keep exploding at an accelerating rate. It is a simple matter of actuarial math, the more oil we ship by rail the more risks we entertain. This augurs the question, how many train wrecks will it take before we realize that transporting oil by rail is not safe?. 

The spate of oil train disasters suggest that we need to see an end to oil trains. However, this should not be interpreted as support for transporting oil by pipe. As evidenced by a review of Alberta oil spills and explosions, pipelines are also dangerous.

The fact is that there is no safe way to transport oil. These oil train wrecks should be taken as yet another reason why we need to radically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our reliance on safe and clean renewable energy.

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