But shipping petroleum by rail is far from trouble-free. And the huge increase in oil-by-rail in the past five years means more trouble ahead, some of it lethal. That, as well as environmental concerns, has led citizens in some communities, from upstate New York to Washington state, to try to stop expansions or new construction of shipping terminals.
Constrained by the limited access to pipelines in Alberta, and with the construction of Keystone XL not likely to decided until late this year or early next—with no assurances that it will be approved—tar sands producers have been signing contracts with railroads to move their product—bitumen but mostly diluted bitumen (dilbit) to U.S. refineries.
Since 2012, a limited amount of tar sands petroleum has been traveling the rails in manifest trains, that is, those with mixed cargo. But late last year, for the first time, a unit train—a train dedicated to a single cargo—carried tar sands petroleum from Bruderheim, Alberta, to refineries in the U.S. Midwest. Such unit trains—with as many as 100 railcars—are more cost-effective than manifest trains. Tar sands trains from the Bruderheim terminal are now moving about 50,000 barrels a day. Plans are to be moving 550,000 bpd in unit trains from Western Canada within the next 18 months. Keystone XL is meant to carry a maximum of 830,000 bpd.
At the moment, however, it's not shipping tar sands petroleum by rail that is the chief worry of environmental advocates, community leaders, emergency responders and regulators. It's the boom in shipments of crude oil, particularly shale oil taken by hydraulic fracturing from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana. One big problem: Some of those rail shipments themselves go boom, as occurred in Lac-Mégantic last July when 47 people were killed by a derailment of a 72-car shipment of Bakken shale oil that destroyed 30 buildings in the center of town. Costs of the accident could reach more than $2.5 billion.
There is more to read below the fold.
In 2008, just 9,500 railcar-loads of crude originated in the United States. Last year, 407,642 carloads did, adding up to some 800,000 bpd, a 74 percent increase over 2012. That was 1.4 percent of total U.S. rail traffic for 2013. It's thus no surprise that crude oil trains have been involved in some deadly accidents.
Including both Canada and the United States, about a million bpd of crude oil are loaded or unloaded each day at one of the 188 existing terminals, with 51 more in the construction or planning stages. But according to the research and advocacy group Oil Change International, loading capacity is already at 3.5 million bpd, and by 2016 that capacity could grow to more than 5.1 million bpd.
At the current level, about 9 million bpd are being loaded, unloaded or in transit at any one time. That's around 135 crude oil unit trains of 100 cars each. But if the capacity being planned for or under construction is reached, we're talking 45 million bpd on 675 unit trains, all of them traveling through Canadian and U.S. communities.
An example of where we're headed can be found in Kern, California. Currently, it sees about one mile-long oil train a month. But by 2016, it could be seeing one every six hours.
Last month, Oil Change International published the first in what will be a series of reports, Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude-by-Rail in North America:
The proliferation of barges and tankers carrying crude oil on major rivers, together with the thousands of miles of rail lines that run adjacent to and across North America's rives and wetlands, translate into a massive threat to the continent's water resources over and above that already posed by fracking and tar sands extraction. This was painfully demonstrated by the accidents and spills in Aliceville, Alabama, and Lynchburg, Virginia, as well as at the tragic disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, all of which spilled oil into bodies of water.That organizing has many obstacles to success. A key one was revealed this week by Steve Horn at DeSmogBlog and at Daily Kos.
Citizens and local governments across North America are taking action to oppose crude train passing through their communities and to fight against new or expanded terminals in their midst. Further action is needed to ensure that regulators put the safety of communities above profits for the oil and rail industries.
Communities need to organize to stop this runaway train in its tracks.
An examination of logs of meetings on proposed rail safety regulations held by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) found that most of them were with oil and gas industry lobbyists and representatives, Horn writes:
At the June 12-13 Railway Age Oil-by-Rail Conference, just two days after rail industry representatives met with OIRA, American Association of Railroads President Edward Hamberg, former assistant secretary for governmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), made the case for safety.But, Horn adds, documents "show one consistent message from the rail industry: safety costs big bucks. And these are bucks industry is going to fight against having to spend."
“Railroads believe that federal tank car standards should be raised to ensure crude oil and other flammable liquids are moving in the safest car possible based on the product they are moving,” said Hamberg.
“The industry also wants the existing crude oil fleet upgraded through retrofits or older cars to be phased out as quickly as possible.”
Those costs would be incurred from operating at slower speeds, installing better brakes and replacing older model tanker cars with new ones, the majority of which are outdated and not well-suited for carrying crude oil or bitumen.
As Michael W. Robbins wrote last month:
The original DOT-111 tank car was designed in the 1960s. Its safety flaws were pointed out in the early '90s, but more than 200,000 are still in service, with about 78,000 carrying crude oil and other flammable liquids. The DOT-111 tank car's design flaws "create an unacceptable public risk," Deborah Hersman, then chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, testified at a Senate hearing in April. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has compared the car to "a ticking time bomb." While the rail industry has voluntarily rolled out about 14,000 stronger tank cars, about 78,000 of the older DOT-111s remain in service. Retrofitting them would cost an estimated $1 billion.It's not that the industry has done nothing. As Kathryn A. Wolfe and Bob King report, voluntary steps DOT has gotten the railroads to agree to include a 40-mph speed limit instead of 50 mph for trains of more than 20 tank cars of Bakken crude in "high-threat" urban areas, some rerouting in densely populated areas and an end to ranking Bakken oil in lowest hazard category allowed. DOT is now inspecting more Bakken shipments and evaluating whether that oil is more flammable than other types of crude. Last month, DOT asked shippers to stop carrying Bakken oil in older tank cars:
DOT’s mandatory measures include an emergency order requiring shippers to test the oil before sending it off, among other provisions. Another order requires railroads to inform state emergency managers about how much Bakken crude they’re transporting, how often the trains travel and the routes they follow. That information would then be available to firefighters and other first responders.The problem is that the left hand of industry and the right hand of industry seem to be engaged in two different approaches, one devoted to PR and one to profit.
Until now, no regulations required communities to get such specific data on a regular basis, although rail companies voluntarily gave emergency agencies general information about what trains carried.
In the short run, oil companies, railroads and regulators must deal effectively with safety and environmental issues related to hauling all that spillable crude around the nation. Which—are you listening OIRA?—means meeting with interests other than the industries involved, something we should not have to dig into public records to learn isn't happening.
But, ultimately, the issue that we must all deal with is our addiction to oil, the burning of which, together with coal and natural gas, is driving a change in climate that is generating ever-more-harmful impacts around the globe and will produce yet more even if we were to stop that burning tomorrow.