One of the arguments used by supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline is that pipelines are safer than transporting the oil via the rail roads, as is currently being done. Well, fans of that argument gained an anecdote in their favor when a mile-long train hauling Canadian oil derailed yesterday in Minnesota, spilling some 30,000 gallons.
The major spill, the first since the start of a boom in North American crude-by-rail transport three years ago, came when 14 cars on a 94-car Canadian Pacific train left the tracks about 150 miles northwest of Minneapolis near the town of Parkers Prairie, the Otter Tail Sheriff's Department said.
Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd, the country's second-largest railroad, said only one 26,000-gallon tank car had ruptured, adding it was a mixed freight train.
Ah, you can already hear the Keystone fans revving up their talking points, "This wouldn't happen if we had a pipeline! Trains are too dangerous!"
I don't enjoy defending one method for increasing oil consumption over another, but this is an opportunity to compare the ways spills can occur with different transportation methods.
I'm no engineer, but from what I understand, when a section of pipe ruptures, the quantity of oil that can spill is as large as the pipe is thick and long until you reach the nearest shutoff valve. It also depends on how fast the pipeline operators notice the spill, shut off the flow and close the leak.
As the nice TransCanada video explains, they are using some fancy shutoff valves, so nothing could go seriously wrong, as long as no sensors ever fail or there are no problems with the satellite communication, which never happens as anyone with a cell phone or satellite TV can attest!
Here are a few examples to help illustrate how these spills can go in the real world:
In July of 2010, when the Enbridge pipeline ruptured in Michigan, some 800,000 gallons were spilled.
In May 2011, when TransCanada's Keystone 1 pipeline spilled 21,000 gallons in North Dakota, it was their twelfth spill in the first year of operating the pipeline. They ended up allowing thirty three spills that first year, alone!
When the ExxonMobil Silvertip pipeline ruptured in Montana and spilled 42,000 gallons into the Yellowstone River, oil was spread for 240 miles downriver and operators took 56 minutes to seal the leak. Had this been the Keystone XL pipeline, which has a much higher carrying capacity, the spill would have released 1,000,000 gallons of oil.
When a train derails, as this example in Minnesota illustrates, the amount of oil that can spill depends on the number of tanks that rupture. There is one tank per rail car and in this instance 14 cars on the 94-car train derailed. And of those 14, it was one to three tanks that ruptured, depending on who you ask.
That's not too bad, compared to some recent pipeline accidents. Plus, as Reuters reports, this was the first major spill since crude-by-rail transport boomed three years ago. You can do the math using just the examples above to see how much more the pipelines have leaked in that same time period.
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.
As Lloyd wrote back in October 2011, an important step in reducing the amount of oil shipped around the US is reducing demand. But reducing demand is a longer-term project. It is surely an important one, but policy changes that help reduce demand will not stop a pipeline that is already under construction.
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.
UPDATE: Dan Olson from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reports
"A total of 14 tanker cars derailed. Three tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed were leaking oil. Initial estimates were that 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of crude oil spilled. After close examination of the three leaking tanker cars, that estimate was lowered Thursday, March 28, to something less than 15,000 gallons. Minnesota is having a late spring and the site is still frozen and covered with quite a lot of snow, which helped prevent any oil from moving down the ditch or soaking into the soil. The accident currently poses no threat to either surface or ground waters.
Freezing temperatures at the site that helped contain the spill have also made it difficult to take up the oil. Only about 1,000 gallons has been recovered. The remaining oil on the ground has thickened into a heavy tar-like consistency mixed with snow. This oil/snow mixture is being excavated into piles that are being stored in a lined depression that has been created on the site to safely store the excavated oil until it can be hauled away for disposal. The process of collecting the spilled oil in this manner will likely take another day or two.
The Railroad has ordered equipment to the site that will use steam to heat the 14 derailed tanker cars so the oil they contain can be pumped into other tanker cars. This process is expected to take up to a few weeks."
VIDEO: TransCanada video explains how their high-tech shutoff valves are supposed to work.