It’s incredible that no one was hurt or killed in Casselton, N.D., last month when an oil train crashed, exploded, and blazed dramatically. (You can see what it looked like here.) That harrowing experience, along with a similar disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that left 47 dead, has prompted calls for more secure oil-transportation practices.
America’s energy industry has boomed in recent years, providing jobs, cutting consumer costs, and reducing dependence on foreign imports. Right now, though, red tape is limiting transportation options and possibly putting consumers at risk.
As the United States produces more energy domestically, it has stressed the existing transportation infrastructure. The New York Times reports that 400,000 carloads of crude oil were transported by rail in 2013 – compared with just 9,500 in 2008. And the Association of American Railroad’s Annual Report of Hazardous Materials has estimated that crude-oil rail shipments grew by 400 percent since 2005. One-tenth of America’s oil travels by train, the Times notes.
Railways have strained to meet this skyrocketing demand, sometimes using older cars, such as the DOT-111 model tankers involved in the Casselton wreck, which are at higher risk for puncture and leaks. And in fact, the National Transportation Safety Board found in its preliminary report that all but two of the 20 cars that derailed in Casselton had been punctured.
The number of incidents have increased nationwide, as the New York Times notes:
Since March there have been no fewer than 10 large crude spills in the United States and Canada because of rail accidents. The number of gallons spilled in the United States last year, federal records show, far outpaced the total amount spilled by railroads from 1975 to 2012. . . .
While the safety record of railroads has improved in recent years, the surge in oil transportation has meant a spike in spill rates. From 1975 to 2012, federal records show, railroads spilled 800,000 gallons of crude oil. Last year alone, they spilled more than 1.15 million gallons, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And that figure does not include the Casselton spill, estimated at about 400,000 gallons.
Partially in response to the Casselton wreck, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of recommendations to the Department of Transportation last week, which have been endorsed by the rail industry. That’s a good first step, but it would also help if the federal government would remove roadblocks that prevent investment in oil-transportation alternatives.
The United States is home to more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline, but more is needed. For example, as the Times reported, North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil field faces a significant pipeline shortage, which has resulted in about two-thirds of the oil produced being transported by rail.
But a study published by Canada’s Fraser Institute in October found:
US data on incident, injury, and fatality rates for pipelines, road, and rail for the 2005 to 2009 period (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 percent more likely to get killed by lightning than to be killed in a pipeline accident.
There’s a tradeoff there, too; pipeline leaks are rarer but often bigger. But the overall benefit seems to outweigh the risks.
Unfortunately, as the Keystone XL has demonstrated, building a new pipeline is easier said than done. Environmental groups have aggressively opposed the development of new pipelines, and bureaucrats have aided them by dragging their feet on approval.
But America’s energy industry is expected to continue growing rapidly, and having more options available will help ensure the safest possible transportation protocols are being followed.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She also writes about energy and environmental policy as a senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum.