Transporting Fossil Fuels: Rail vs. Pipeline is the Wrong Question

Repost from EcoWatch

Transporting Fossil Fuels: Rail vs. Pipeline is the Wrong Question

Dr. David Suzuki | January 21, 2014

Debating the best way to do something we shouldn’t be doing in the first place is a sure way to end up in the wrong place. That’s what’s happening with the “rail versus pipeline” discussion. Some say recent rail accidents mean we should build more pipelines to transport fossil fuels. Others argue that leaks, high construction costs, opposition and red tape surrounding pipelines are arguments in favour of using trains.


But the recent spate of rail accidents and pipeline leaks and spills doesn’t provide arguments for one or the other; instead, it indicates that rapidly increasing oil and gas development and shipping ever greater amounts, by any method, will mean more accidents, spills, environmental damage—even death. The answer is to step back from this reckless plunder and consider ways to reduce our fossil fuel use.

If we were to slow down oil sands development, encourage conservation and invest in clean energy technology, we could save money, ecosystems and lives—and we’d still have valuable fossil fuel resources long into the future, perhaps until we’ve figured out ways to use them that aren’t so wasteful. We wouldn’t need to build more pipelines just to sell oil and gas as quickly as possible, mostly to foreign markets. We wouldn’t have to send so many unsafe rail tankers through wilderness areas and places people live.

We may forgo some of the short-term jobs and economic opportunities the fossil fuel industry provides, but surely we can find better ways to keep people employed and the economy humming. Gambling, selling guns and drugs and encouraging people to smoke all create jobs and economic benefits, to0—but we rightly try to limit those activities when the harms outweigh the benefits.

Both transportation methods come with significant risks. Shipping by rail leads to more accidents and spills, but pipeline leaks usually involve much larger volumes. One of the reasons we’re seeing more train accidents involving fossil fuels is the incredible boom in moving these products by rail. According to the American Association of Railroads, train shipment of crude oil in the U.S. grew from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 234,000 in 2012—almost 25 times as many in only four years! That’s expected to rise to 400,000 this year.

As with pipelines, risks are increased because many rail cars are older and not built to standards that would reduce the chances of leaks and explosions when accidents occur. Some in the rail industry argue it would cost too much to replace all the tank cars as quickly as is needed to move the ever-increasing volumes of oil. We must improve rail safety and pipeline infrastructure for the oil and gas that we’ll continue to ship for the foreseeable future, but we must also find ways to transport less.

The economic arguments for massive oil sands and liquefied natural gas development and expansion aren’t great to begin with—at least with the way our federal and provincial governments are going about it. Despite a boom in oil sands growth and production, “Alberta has run consecutive budget deficits since 2008 and since then has burned through $15 billion of its sustainability fund,” according to an article on the Tyee website. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says Alberta’s debt is now $7 billion and growing by $11 million daily.

As for jobs, a 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows less than one percent of Canadian workers are employed in extraction and production of oil, coal and natural gas. Pipelines and fossil fuel development are not great long-term job creators, and pale in comparison to employment generated by the renewable energy sector.

Beyond the danger to the environment and human health, the worst risk from rapid expansion of oil sands, coal mines and gas fields and the infrastructure needed to transport the fuels is the carbon emissions from burning their products—regardless of whether that happens here, in China or elsewhere. Many climate scientists and energy experts, including the International Energy Agency, agree that to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, we must leave at least two-thirds of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

The question isn’t about whether to use rail or pipelines. It’s about how to reduce our need for both.

Visit EcoWatch’s PIPELINES  page for more related news on this topic.

    Railroads agree to slow down crude oil trains in major cities

    Repost from ABC News
    IMPORTANT TO NOTE: “The agreement does not … address an estimated 78,000 flawed tank cars that carry crude and ethanol and are known to split open during derailments. The U.S. Department of Transportation said it would address the tank car issue separately.”

    Oil Train Wrecks Spur Railroad Safety Measures

    BILLINGS, Mont. February 21, 2014 (AP)
    By MATTHEW BROWN and JOAN LOWY Associated Press

    Railroads that haul volatile crude shipments have reached an agreement with U.S. transportation officials to adopt wide-ranging, voluntary safety measures after a string of explosive and deadly accidents.

    The deal signed Friday calls for oil trains to be slowed from a maximum of 50 to 40 miles per hour through major cities, more frequent track inspections and better emergency response planning along routes that carry trains hauling up to 3 million gallons of crude each.

    The new safety steps would begin going into effect in late March and be fully in place by July 1.

    After a boom in domestic drilling in recent years, oil trains now travel thousands of miles from oil producing areas, including the Northern Plains, to coastal refineries and shipping terminals along the Mississippi River and other major waterways.

    The agreement does not resolve concerns over another hazardous fuel, ethanol, involved in a spate of rail accidents in recent years. It also does not address an estimated 78,000 flawed tank cars that carry crude and ethanol and are known to split open during derailments.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation said it would address the tank car issue separately.

    By taking voluntary steps, the railroads will be able to act more quickly than if they waited for new safety rules to be drafted and approved by the government, said Robert Chipkevich, a former director of rail accident investigations at the National Transportation Safety Board.

    But regulators will have little leverage to enforce the industry’s commitments, he added.

    “It’s a positive step,” Chipkevich said. “But certainly there’s nothing to say they would have to continue following those practices. The only way you can enforce something like that would be for regulators to publish regulations and do periodic oversight.”

    Federal officials said they would continue to pursue longer-term safety measures and use regular inspections to check for compliance with the industry agreement. With no formal rules in place inspectors could not issue fines or take other punitive measures.

    “We expect for this to be a document that is fully adhered to, and are prepared to inspect accordingly and call out the industry as necessary,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said in a Friday interview with The Associated Press.

    The Association of American Railroads represents the major railroads in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. President Edward Hamberger said he expects all of them to sign the agreement.

    At least 10 times since 2008, freight trains hauling oil across North America have derailed and spilled significant quantities of crude, with most of the accidents touching off fires or catastrophic explosions.

    The deadliest wreck killed 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Others have occurred in rural areas of North Dakota, Alabama, Oklahoma and New Brunswick. The derailments released almost 3 million gallons of oil, nearly twice as much as the largest pipeline spill in the U.S. since at least 1986.

    “Safety is our top priority, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure crude oil is transported safely,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

    Members of Congress who had pressed for tighter safety rules — including Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven of North Dakota and Mark Udall of Colorado — welcomed the industry agreement.

      Bloomberg Businessweek: Trains That Go Boom

      Repost from Bloomberg Businessweek

      Trains That Go Boom


      2:10 p.m., Dec. 30, 2013, Casselton, N.D.Photograph by Bruce Crummy/AP Photo2:10 p.m., Dec. 30, 2013, Casselton, N.D.

      For most of the 14 years that Tinamarie Hatlee has lived in Ravena, N.Y., a small town south of Albany, she didn’t mind the trains that passed 50 feet from the back door of her house. They came only a few times a day and moved slowly, so the noise was bearable. But starting last summer, Hatlee says, the trains have been rumbling by every few hours, from early morning until well past midnight. And they go much quicker, as fast as 50 miles an hour, she estimates. Many are oil trains—hundreds of black tank cars filled with tens of thousands of barrels of crude, mainly from oil fields in North Dakota, on their way to refineries on the East Coast. “It’s terrifying to think of all that oil flying by so close to my house,” Hatlee says. “I don’t understand why they have to go so fast.”

      They’re in such a hurry because there’s so much oil to move. Over the past three years, U.S. production has increased by more than 2 million barrels per day to 8 million, and railroads are hauling more fossil fuels than they have in a century. In the third quarter of 2013, trains carried 93,312 carloads of crude oil, or about 66 million barrels—about 900 percent more than in all of 2008. Almost all oil reaches its destination without incident. In recent months, however, an alarming number of oil trains in the U.S. and Canada have derailed, causing spectacular explosions that blackened the sky with burning crude. In July a 74-car train plowed into the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic in the middle of the night, igniting an inferno that killed 47 people. In October a tank train derailed outside Edmonton, Alberta, forcing an evacuation. In November an oil train crashed in Alabama, spilling thousands of barrels into a marshland. In December two trains collided in Casselton, N.D., one carrying soybeans, the other crude. Eighteen tank cars ruptured and burst into flames, spilling about 400,000 gallons of oil.

      Local, state, and federal officials, as well as the oil and railroad industries, are calling for tougher safeguards to prevent these kinds of accidents. Just what those protections will look like is anyone’s guess. The tangle of competing laws and regulations governing U.S. railroads allows everyone to claim that someone else is to blame.

      Mayors and governors in states that oil trains travel through have been making the most forceful demands. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to double the number of state rail inspectors from 5 to 10. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pressing for a hazardous materials fee on oil companies and refiners to pay for upgraded railroad tracks, more first responders, and disaster insurance for towns along oil routes. Emanuel doesn’t have the power to make that happen, though. Overseeing railroads is primarily the federal government’s job, in part because the industry would be paralyzed if it had to comply with widely varying local regulations each time a train passed through a town.

      Washington doesn’t appear to be in a rush to address the problem. On Jan. 23, investigators at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board made broad recommendations that would have big consequences: They said crude oil should meet the same restrictions as toxic chemicals, which must be routed on tracks away from population centers. In 2012 the NTSB said crude oil should travel only in upgraded tank cars with thicker, more puncture-resistant walls and sophisticated relief valves. This would require the industry to hasten upgrading its fleet of older, thinner-walled cars better suited to ferrying corn syrup than explosive fossil fuels. “The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said when she released the report. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

      The government may require oil companies to upgrade aging oil tank cars to help prevent explosionsThe government may require oil companies to upgrade aging oil tank cars to help prevent explosions

      But Hersman can’t require oil and rail companies to comply with her recommendations, and they haven’t. President Obama could urge federal regulators to act quickly to come up with new safety rules. Congress could pass legislation. Neither has happened. Obama has been mostly silent on the issue, and congressional leaders haven’t pushed bills to increase rail safety. Hearings on the matter are getting under way on Capitol Hill this month. The government should be “embarrassed by how unprepared they were for this,” says Fred Millar, a rail safety consultant who’s worked for cities and environmental groups.

        For safe and healthy communities…