Worried about Keystone XL? You might want to also take a second look at that choo-choo train moving through your backyard right now. Trains are moving more crude oil than ever before — in fact, it’s estimated that by this year, trains from North Dakota alone will be moving almost as much oil per day as Keystone XL would. While the train industry prides itself on a 99.99% success rate when it comes to smoothly transporting crude oil, that .01% actually amounts to a whole lot of oil when you’re talking about the huge volume carried by the industry. So much, in fact, that the oil spills associated with trains in 2013 exceeded those of the previous four decades combined.
In 1975, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started collecting and compiling data on oil spills from trains. Between then and 2012, 800 million gallons of crude oil were spilled on railcars across the United States. In 2013, 1.15 million gallons were spilled, some in catastrophic accidents. A Canadian Pacific Railway train en route from Canada derailed in March, for example, while a rural derailment in Alabama was accompanied by an impressive explosion. Neither incident held a candle to the horrific Canadian train explosion that killed 47 people last year (it wasn’t included in the total because it didn’t take place on U.S. soil).
What’s happening here? The first issue is that more oil than ever before is going by train, as discussed above. When you increase the volume of a commodity being transported, even if the safety record remains the same, the rate of incidents will still go up, keeping pace with the increased amount of oil being carried. With railcars carrying oil back and forth across the United States growing in numbers, oil spills are going up too, with regions like North Dakota bearing the brunt of it because of the extremely high rail traffic they experience.
Furthermore, the type of oil being transported has changed. Unlike light sweet crude, the highly valued oil once preferred by oil and gas companies across the country, many of these trains are carrying a particularly dangerous form of heavy crude oil. It’s more volatile, which translates to more catastrophic incidents during derailments and collisions — explaining why several recent incidents have included massive explosions and spilled oil that continues to burn for days even after fire suppressant is laid down.
These incidents don’t just cause fires and problems at the time. They also contaminate soil and waterways, leading to long-term health and environmental problems. In areas with a high number of oil spills, the concentration of petroleum-related chemicals and byproducts poses a significant risk to human health, especially for developing fetuses, which may in turn cause clusters of developmental and intellectual impairments for children growing up in such environments. Meanwhile, fish, birds,and other animals are struggling to survive in the oily landscape.
Washington is responding to the problem with a task force that will discuss changes to routes, tanker design, speed limits and other regulations surrounding the transport of crude oil by rail. These changes will hopefully improve the safety record for rail companies and protect communities, but they won’t eradicate the fundamental problem: the United States needs to turn to more renewable and environmentally-friendly sources of energy before it’s too late.
Photo credit: Randen Pederson.