Canadian train explosion rekindles oil pipeline versus train debate

Lac-Megantic train explosion rekindles pipeline debate
On Saturday, a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded destroying an historic part of Lac-Megantic, Quebec and killing at least four 13 people.. As firefighters continue to fight the train fire and search for the 40 50 missing people, this explosion has already rekindled the debate over transporting oil by rail or by pipeline. Here's a review of the cause of the debate and why there's no easy solution, but definitely room to improve the status quo.

The Associated Press gives the background on the transportation logistics challenges the oil industry is facing:

Because of limited pipeline capacity in North Dakota's Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are using railroads to transport much of the oil to refineries on the East, Gulf and West coasts, as well as inland. Harper has called railroad transit "far more environmentally challenging" while trying to persuade the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

In a good review of the context of how rail transportation is a part of the Keystone XL debate, Ian Austen at The New York Times notes that there is a lack of safety regulations and inspections on oil shipments:

Unlike pipeline proposals, however, the escalation of rail movements of oil, including light oil shipments from the Bakken fields as well as from similar unconventional, or tight, oil deposits in Canada, is not covered by any regular government or regulatory review.
...
Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada who has examined the increased use of oil trains, criticized railways in Canada and the United States for continuing to use older oil tank cars that he said were found to be unsafe more than 20 years ago.

A 2009 report by the National Transportation Safety Board about a Canadian National derailment in Illinois called the design of those tank cars “inadequate” and found that it “made the cars subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.” Television images suggested that the surviving tank cars on the Lac-Mégantic train were of the older design.

Canada's CBC interviewed Emile Therien, former president of Canada Safety Council about rail safety and risks involved with freight trains traveling through city centers:

Therien notes the combination of factors that could have led to this derailment, including human error, aged equipment failing and that the train was parked on a hill.

This lack of regulatory review, the use of aging and unsafe rail cars and transporting dangerous cargo through densely populated areas is certainly cause for concern, but as I've written here before, the problems with rail transport are not therefore good reasons for more oil pipelines.

In March 2013 when a train derailed in Minnesota and spilled some 30,000 gallons of crude oil, Reuters reported that it was first major spill since crude-by-rail transport took off three years ago.

At the time, I wrote about how rail accidents could be much larger, but that this was still not a good argument for allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to be built. I'm saddened to see my prediction at the time come true so soon and in such a deadly way.:

Now, it is safe to say that train accidents have the potential to be much larger. I can easily imagine a massive collision or explosion that would rupture many more tanks, spilling a lot more oil.

An additional concern about crude-by-rail transport is that it pollutes more than a pipeline would. This is true and unfortunate. But that transporting oil by rail is more polluting than a pipeline is not a compelling argument for allowing the pipeline.

Stopping the Keystone XL pipeline is important not just because it will help stop future leaks that, judging from the track record of TransCanada's first pipeline, Keystone 1, as highlighted above, will be much larger than the spills we've seen from rail transport, but it also prevents a massive piece of essentially permanent fossil fuel infrastructure from being established that will no doubt push global warming past the point of no return, as the "terrifying math of global warming" makes startlingly clear.

It really too bad this train derailed and spilled this oil, but don't be fooled when people claim this is why we need Keystone XL. What we really need is to leave the oil in the ground.

In April when the State Department released a draft of its environmental assessment of the Keystone XL proposal that suggested much more oil will be shipped by rail without the pipeline, I wrote:

The debate over rail versus pipelines is the wrong argument to be having. The more important issue is whether we allow these fossil fuels to be extracted or leave them in the ground and their carbon out of the atmosphere.


Following Saturday's oil explosion, Ryan Koronowski at Think Progress also notes the false choice of the trains versus pipeline debate:

Actually both are extremely poor alternatives compared to simply not opening a spigot to world’s largest and dirtiest pools of carbon in the first place.

He's right, but even if we set the issue of climate change aside, there's clearly more we can be doing in terms of basic public safety.

From tar sands oil spills in Mayflower and Kalamazoo to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and now Lac-Mégantic, I am so tired of seeing people have their lives destroyed by the incompetence or negligence of the oil and gas industry. That this tragic disaster may have happened due to the failure of one human to properly engage the brakes on a train that was parked uphill from a populated downtown is simply unacceptable. And that the results may have been more disastrous because the rail and oil companies are not required to invest in the safest transport car technology available is wrong. Enough is enough. Yes, ultimately we must get off of dirty energy, but it isn't going to happen overnight. If we can't immediately stop oil and gas companies from polluting the atmosphere, can we at least do more to make sure they aren't destroying towns and lives like this in the process?

For much more on the Lac-Megantic explosion, see my first post here.

UPDATE: This is a great recap of the Lac-Mégantic explosion and at 9:45 they discuss the dangers of shipping oil via rail.

UPDATE II: And it begins! Diana Furchtgott-Roth wrote an op-ed in The Globe and Mail using the Lac-Mégantic explosion as justification for building more pipelines to transport oil:

If the this oil shipment had been carried through pipelines, instead of rail, families in Lac-Mégantic would not be grieving for lost loved ones today, and oil would not be polluting Lac Mégantic and the Chaudière River.

Ugh. To her credit, she frames her argument in the context of human safety based on the number of total accidents by different modes of transportation.

U.S. data on incident, injury, and fatality rates for pipelines, road, and rail for the period 2005 through 2009, the latest data available, show that road and rail have higher rates of serious incidents, injuries, and fatalities than pipelines, even though more road and rail incidents go unreported. Americans are 75 per cent more likely to get killed by lightening than to be killed in a pipeline accident.

Between 2005 and 2009, road had the highest rate of incidents, with 19.95 per billion ton-miles. This was followed by rail, with 2.08 per billion ton-miles. Natural gas transmission came next, with 0.89 per billion ton-miles. Oil pipelines were the safest, with 0.58 serious incidents per billion ton-miles.

The same can be seen from rates of injury per ton-mile. Rail transport was 37 more likely to result in injuries requiring hospitalization than pipeline, and road was 143 times more likely.

Fatality rates showed the same pattern. Pipeline transportation was safest, with rail 25 times as likely to have fatalities, and road 70 times as likely.

I still feel like this debate is happening on too superficial of a level. If rail has been found to be less safe, that doesn't mean pipeline are our only choice. Rail can be made safer. There are safer types of rail cars that can be used, for example. The trains can be monitored and brakes can be properly applied.

UPDATE III: Andy Revkin tweets to a report by the Sightline Institute from last month that looked at the way transporting oil by train could change the Northwest:


  • In Oregon and Washington, 11 refineries and port terminals are planning, building, or already operating oil-by-rail shipments.

  • If all of the projects were built and operated at full capacity, they would put an estimated 20 mile-long trains per day on the Northwest’s railway system. Many worry about the risk of oil spills from thousands of loaded oil trains that may soon traverse the region each year.

  • Taken together, the oil-by-rail projects planned for the Northwest would be capable of delivering enough fuel to exceed the region’s oil refining capacity. Ironically, two of the facilities that would handle oil by rail were originally built to supply renewable fuels.

  • The projects are designed to transport fuel from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota, but the infrastructure could also be used to export Canadian tar sands oil. In fact, if all of the oil-by-rail projects were built, they would be capable of moving 720,000 barrels per day—that’s more oil capacity than either of the controversial pipelines planned in British Columbia.

John Upton at Grist concludes:

The weekend tragedy is a reminder that the energy industry can’t be trusted to do anything safely, let alone transport oil.

Jeremy van Loon & Gerrit De Vynck at Bloomberg have a detailed look at the different sides in the rail versus pipeline debate:

“Pipeline companies will use this to point out the advantages and safety records of pipelines,” Bob Schulz, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, said in an interview. “It gives those companies an additional point to support their argument.”

Keystone XL opponents have asked U.S. President Barack Obama to reject the $5.3 billion project, saying it poses a threat of oil spills. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental group, said it was inaccurate to assert that the Keystone XL pipeline was “something that can save us from oil on rail.”

“Rail will continue, and its safety problems can’t be ignored,” Anthony Swift, an energy analyst with the group, said in a telephone interview.

IMAGE: Wreckage continues to burn on July 7, 2013 after a freight train loaded with oil derailed July 6 in Lac-Mégantic in Canada's Quebec province, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in a wall of fire. Now scores of people -- perhaps as many as 80 -- are missing. Rescuers cautiously entered the charred debris Sunday, more than 24 hours after the spectacular crash that saw flames shoot into the sky and burn into the night. The accident and resulting huge fireball forced 2,000 people from their homes. Witnesses reported up to six explosions after the train derailed at about 1:20 am (0520 GMT Saturday) in Lac-Megantic.

Tags: Canada | Oil | Oil Spill | Quebec | Trains

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