Train crashes stir fears over oil transport
The derailments released almost three million gallons of oil, nearly twice as much as the largest pipeline spill in the United States since at least 1986. The deadliest wreck killed 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
Those findings, from an Associated Press review of U.S. and Canadian accident records, underscore a lesser-known danger of America's oil boom, which is changing the global energy balance and raising urgent safety questions closer to home.
Experts say recent efforts to improve the safety of oil shipments belie an unsettling fact: With increasing volumes of crude now moving by rail, it has become impossible to send oil-hauling trains to refineries without passing major population centers, where more lives and property are at risk.
Because it contains more natural gas than heavier crude, Bakken oil can have a lower ignition point. Of the six oil trains that derailed and caught fire since 2008, four came from the Bakken and each caused at least one explosion. That includes the accident at Lac-Megantic, which spilled an estimated 1.6 million gallons and set off a blast that leveled a large section of the town.
After recent fiery derailments in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota, and New Brunswick, companies and regulators in the U.S. and Canada are pursuing an array of potential changes such as slowing or rerouting trains, upgrading rupture-prone tank cars, and bolstering fire departments.
Company executives were expected to offer a set of voluntary safety measures in the coming days at the request of U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
"I'm absolutely positive the railway industry will come up with techniques to define how to minimize risk," said Allan Zarembski, who leads the rail-safety program at the University of Delaware. "The key word is minimize. You can't eliminate risk."
Since 2008, the number of tanker cars hauling oil has increased 40-fold, and federal records show that has been accompanied by a dramatic spike in accidental crude releases from tank cars. Over the next decade, rail-based oil shipments are forecast to increase from 1 million barrels a day to more than 4.5 million barrels a day, according to transportation officials.
By rail, it is roughly 2,000 miles from the heart of the oil boom on the Northern Plains to some of the East Coast refineries that turn the crude into gasoline.
Trains pulling several million gallons apiece must pass through metropolitan areas that include Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo.
Some cities, such as Chicago, have belt railroads that divert freight traffic from the metropolitan core. But trains sometimes have no option but to roll deep into populated areas. That is the case in Philadelphia; New Orleans; Albany, N.Y.; and Tacoma, Wash.
In Philadelphia last month, six tanker cars carrying oil derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill. The CSX Corp. freight train had picked up North Dakota oil in Chicago and was headed for the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in South Philadelphia. Nothing was spilled, but the accident rattled nerves.