May 5 2014
Another day and another front page picture of a derailed oil tanker train. This time it was Lynchburg and one big problem for regulators is that the train was traveling below the speed limit that had just recently been set by the Federal Railroad administration, among other updated safety regulations.
Accidents like the one in Lynchburg and last summer’s devastating derailment in Lac-Megantic, Canada highlight what is likely to be a growing problem because oil shipments by rail have increased 25-fold over the past few years and don’t look likely to slow down any time soon.
The question to ask is why we’re moving so much oil from shale exploration in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and elsewhere by train at all? Pipelines are safer.
In Texas, pipelines can’t keep up with demand so trains have become the go-to way to transport oil, even though it is more expensive to use rails:
Transporting crude oil by pipeline is generally cheaper than by rail, at a cost of about $5 a barrel compared with $10 to $15 a barrel, according to a February report by the Congressional Research Service. Yet rail offers its own advantages, including speed. Transporting oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields to the Gulf Coast can take five to seven days by rail, compared with about 40 days by pipeline…..For a company with crude to transport, railroads can be the simpler solution if a link to a pipeline is not already in place, said Sandy Fielden, the director of energy analytics for RBN Energy, a consulting firm.
So why aren’t there enough pipelines? The answer is that getting new systems approved is nearly impossible.
Consider the recent fight in New Jersey over a proposed new pipeline through part of the Pinelands region which is an environmentally protected space. In that case, the pro-pipeline forces had lined up labor unions (for the jobs) alongside the energy companies that wanted the gas to update their coal-fired plant. You might have thought environmentalists would be pleased about a plan to stop using coal to generate electricity, switching to cleaner natural gas instead. It is worth noting as well that the proposed route through the Pinelands would have used existing roads and throughways so that the environmental impact was going to be minimal, if anything at all. But this was not enough for the environmentalists says Bret Stephens:
When it comes to the question of how best to transport oil, environmentalists tend to act like rabbis being asked for advice on how best to roast a pig: The thing should not be done in the first place. So opposition to Keystone XL becomes an assertion of virtue, indifferent to such lesser considerations as efficiency (or succulence).
But the pig will be roasted. The oil will be pumped. What happens then?
Sadly, it seems likely that there will be more terrible accidents that could have been prevented by pipelines.