Recipe for disaster: Put a flammable substance under pressure into a metal container, then rumble it at 50 miles an hour down a metal rail, across hundreds or even thousands of miles, through towns and cities and over bodies of water. Repeat, as necessary.
The United States is coming to the end of the costliest year on record for oil train explosions, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday, as crude oil travelling by rail has reached its highest levels ever. This past year saw a town in North Dakota evacuated after a May derailment and explosion; another major derailment and explosion in Illinois in March; and a February derailment and explosion in West Virginia, which destroyed a home, forced the evacuation of 1,000 people, and caused the governor to declare a state of emergency.
At the beginning of 2010, the United States was shipping about one million barrels of oil by rail every month. By mid-2014, though, that number was around 25 million. Imports from Canada increased 50-fold during that time. The resulting surge in accidents — including a Quebec derailment in 2013 that killed 47 people — prompted the Department of Transportation to enact new safety rules in May 2015.
But those rules didn’t prevent costs from ballooning from $7.5 million in damage in 2014 to $29.7 million in 2015, according to Department of Transportation data.
Still, carloads of petroleum products have declined significantly since their peak in December 2014, and Bloomberg reporter Mathew Philips suggests that we are unlikely to see this amount of crude by rail in the future.
The reasons for this decline are two-fold. The United States sees crude by rail mainly from two places: Alberta, Canada’s tar sands and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, which are affected by two very different scenarios. The Alberta tar sands are expensive to develop and are far from refineries and consumers. That means developers who have already invested will turn to rail as a way to recoup expenses, but it is not their first choice. Without available, low-cost transportation, new development in the tar sands is economically unfeasible, Oil Change International’s Lorne Stockman told ThinkProgress. According to his group’s report “Lockdown: The End of Growth in the Tar Sands,” without more pipelines, tar sands development is going to hit a wall. (In other words, the group agrees with climate activists who say the Keystone decision really will keep more oil in the ground.
But even though stopping pipeline expansion could inhibit oil extraction in Canada, it’s not so simple in the United States. Developing the Bakken fields is significantly less expensive than in Alberta, and producers have — for the past five years — had no problem using rail to bring their cheap crude to the coasts, where it competed with more expensive overseas oil. Now that overseas prices have dropped, producers are building out more pipeline infrastructure, but without it, they could still compete on the open market.)
“It’s hard to say that if you don’t build the pipe, it won’t go by rail,” Stockman said. “We’ve seen in the last five years that it does go by rail.”
He admits this is probably not what anti-pipeline activists want to hear.
“There are local issues around [pipelines], landowner issues, and I totally sympathize with that,” he said. The answer just isn’t going to be found in infrastructure. “If you want to stop production in the Bakken, you should make the producers pay for their pollution.”
The fact is, there is no safe way to transport oil. Studies have shown that while trains spill more often, pipelines spill more oil per incident. When the new regulations came out in 2014, environmentalists — and some legislators — criticized them as not going far enough. Because the realities of transporting an explosive material are pretty scary: while the new regulations lower allowable speeds, tests have shown that the cars can be punctured travelling at less than 20 miles an hour. The new speed limit is 50 miles an hour.
This week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a petition to reduce the pressure of crude rail cars.
“In New York, trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil routinely travel through our cities and towns without any limit on its explosiveness or flammability — which makes crude oil more likely to catch fire and explode in train accidents,” Schneiderman said in an emailed statement. “The federal government needs to close this extremely dangerous loophole, and ensure that residents of the communities in harm’s way of oil trains receive the greatest possible protection.”