Is oil too dangerous to ship by rail?(Read article summary)
In the wake of the Lac-Megantic oil train disaster, it's important to focus on how to improve rail safety, Styles writes, and not use the tragedy to advance social causes.
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/AP/File
Two Conversations about A Tragedy
Itâ€™s been just over a month since a train loaded with crude oil from North DakotaÂ derailed and explodedÂ in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing anÂ estimated 47 residents. In the interval since the accident, the relevant authoritiesÂ have focusedÂ on ascertaining the cause of the accident and determining how best to improve rail safety. However, there has also been another, less-customary conversation about whether oil in general, and the specific oil on this train, might be too dangerous to transport by rail at all. That conversation would benefit from some context that appears to be absent.
Both conversations began with a tragedyÂ in a placeÂ I recognized immediately. Ten years ago my wife and I passed through Lac-Megantic and drove along the ChaudiĂ¨re river that originates there, on its way to the St. Lawrence. Itâ€™s an area of natural beauty andÂ historical significance. The images of destructionÂ and of oil spilledÂ in the riverÂ were gut-wrenching.
The investigation is still underway, but it seems significant that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)Â of the US Deparment of Transportation has already issued an Emergency OrderÂ banning the practiceÂ of leaving such trains unattended, pending the development of better procedures for securing them safely.Canadian authoritiesÂ areÂ reviewing their regulations and enforcement, as well as revisiting questions about the specificÂ type of tank carÂ in which the oil was carried. The Wall St. JournalÂ reportedÂ that the FRA is alsoÂ looking into the testing and classification of crude oil shipments, to ensure that the tank cars used to transport different crude oils are suited to the task.Â Meanwhile, the rail operator involved in the accident hasfiled for bankruptcyÂ on both sides of the border.Â
Why Was That Train, in That Place, Carrying Oil?
TheÂ second conversation, apparently based on a belief that it is possible toÂ cease our use of petroleumÂ entirely if we only have the will, is occurring in a fact vacuum. Understanding why that particular batch of crude oil was on that specific track onÂ that day requires unpacking a nested set of factors that starts with the fact that oil stillÂ accounts forÂ 33% of total global energy consumption, but more importantly suppliesÂ 93% of transportation energy.Â Numerous forecasts, includingÂ the latestÂ from the US Department of Energy, anticipate no reduction in global oil use through 2040. Although weâ€™ve displaced much of the oil formerly used to generate electricity and have greatly improved vehicle fuel efficiency, our most successful alternative transportation fuel, ethanol â€” no stranger toÂ rail accidentsÂ â€“ accounted for justÂ 3% of US liquid fuel useÂ last year, when adjusted for its lower energy content.
Although global oil movements are dominated by pipelines, tankers and barges,Â rail remains anÂ important modeÂ because of itsÂ flexibility. Itâ€™s also usually cheaper and more efficient than trucking for all but short distances, and safer, too â€” despite accidents like this one. Although the rapidÂ recent growth of crude-oil-by-rail andÂ its roleÂ in the Keystone XL pipeline debate have attracted significant attention, last yearâ€™s234,000Â tank-car loads of crude made up less than half of total USÂ petroleum rail shipmentsÂ and was dwarfed by over 1.5 million tank-car loads of chemicals hauled by rail in 2012.
Crude oil, especially light crudes like those produced from the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, is flammable, and thus constitutes hazardous cargo. However, railroads routinely carry a wide variety of flammable and otherwise hazardous materials, including propane, gasoline, benzene, ethanol, chlorine gas, sulfuric acid and a variety of other chemicals. Safety is notÂ determined by the cargo â€” if it was, none of these substances would be on trains â€” but by the combination of the equipment used to carry it, the rules and processes that dictate how to handle it, and the people who operate these systems. Itâ€™s no coincidence that these are the areas on which the investigations and preliminary regulatory responses have focused.
Then there are the market and logistical circumstances that resulted in aÂ refinery in St. John, New BrunswickÂ that supplies bothÂ Canadian and US consumersÂ and normally processes oil imported by tanker, purchasing oil produced in North Dakota and shipped halfway across the continent by train. North American oil production isÂ expanding rapidly, with significant economic and energy security benefits. Much of this new oil is found inÂ places not adequately served by the large network of existing pipelines.Â That situation may eventually beÂ rectified, but in the meantime the mismatch between growing landlocked oil supplies and limited pipeline outlets for them has created an opportunity for rail operators reeling from the much largerÂ shale-gas-inducedÂ decline in coal shipments. Serving that need keeps people and trains employed. And that, ultimately, is why a train carrying Bakken crude was on a track in Lac-Megantic this July.
Conclusions: The Right Focus Is on Improving Rail Safety
I can scarcely imagine what the survivors of the Lac-Megantic disaster and the families of the victims have been going through for the last month. Their lives will never be the same.Â But whatever the cause of the accident is eventually determined to have been â€” human error, mechanical failure, aging infrastructure or something else â€” it was notÂ caused by the oil in those tank cars.
This accident presents us with two opportunities: One entails figuring out what happened and applying the lessons to making rail transport of all hazardous cargoes safer; the other involves using the tragedy to advance a socialÂ cause such as â€śending our reliance on oil.â€ť As alluring as the latter might seem to some, the communities through which such freight travels in the course of keeping our economy running will benefit much more from the former.