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Trains, Pains and Autumn’s Mo’ Spills: Transporting Crude by Rail Isn’t Working

ND Crude Train Explosion

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Detractors of the Keystone XL pipeline cite safety concerns as a main argument against its construction. The earth and the communities which pipeline construction would affect, they say, should not be subject to the potential dangers of a new transport mecahnism, no matter how effective it may be. So in the absence of a proper pipeline system, the oil — which will be shipped, in this day and age, regardless — is being transported via rail.  This once temporary solution has become the new norm. The only problem? It’s not really safe itself.  

According to the Association of American Railroads, about 400,000 carloads of crude oil traveled the nation’s railroad tracks last year, up from 9,500 in 2008.  People who live along the tracks are nervous about what they view as an inevitability: train wrecks and fire in the sky. Kerry Radermacher, owner of Kerry’s Kitchen which operates across from railroad tracks being used to transport oil in Casselton, ND, told the New York Times: “I feel a little on edge — actually very edgy — every time one of those trains passes.  Most people think we should slow the production, and the trains, down.”

Stopping Keystone XL, which has not been built or yet done any harm, has become the cause célèbre of environmentalists the nation over while its alternative — rail transport — choo-choo’s along, stacking up dangerous evidence of its inability to serve our energy transportation needs.   Recent accidents in Quebec and Alabama caused public alarm and outcry for change to the current system.  The only real solution, creating a pipeline, is being bludgeoned by activists.

Today about two-thirds of the production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil field rides on rails because of a shortage of pipelines. And more than 10 percent of the nation’s total oil production is shipped by rail. Since March there have been no fewer than 10 large crude spills in the United States and Canada because of rail accidents. The number of gallons spilled in the United States last year, federal records show, far outpaced the total amount spilled by railroads from 1975 to 2012.

Due to the sudden boom in oil in North Dakota and surrounding states, infrastructure was not in place to deal with the sudden increase. This left regulators without safety standards and companies to cash in.  Domestic oil production has risen by 50 percent over the past five years.  In 2013 America produced 7.5 million barrels a day.  Those in charge of improving safety have yet to outline a firm plan for improving the situation.

“This is an industry that has developed overnight, and they have been playing catch-up with the infrastructure,” said Deborah A. P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Casselton accident. “A lot of what we’ve seen could have been a lot worse.”

But given the fragmented nature of the business — different companies produce the oil, own the rail cars, and run the railroads — there is no firm consensus on what to do. And few analysts expect new regulations this year.

“There was no political pressure to address this issue in the past, but there clearly is now,” said Brigham A. McCown, a former administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Producers need to understand that rail-car safety can become an impediment to production.”

Damages from the Quebec train wreck are inching towards $1 billion.  “Quebec shocked the industry,” rail transport consultant Anthony B. Hatch told NYT. The question now is, how many tragedies will strike before the safety benefits of Keystone XL become common knowledge?


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