Category Archives: Rail vs. Pipeline

The Flipside of Accuracy: NPR Report on Oil and Ethanol Train Derailments Full of Industry Talking Points

Repost from DeSmogBlog

The Flipside of Accuracy: NPR Report on Oil and Ethanol Train Derailments Full of Industry Talking Points

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, December 2, 2015 – 15:16
Derailment by Sarah Zarling
Image credit: Train derailment in Watertown, Wisconsin by Sarah Zarling.

On November 7th, a train carrying ethanol in DOT-111 tank cars derailed in Wisconsin, resulting in rail cars rupturing and a spill of 18,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River.

The next day, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in a residential area in Watertown, Wisconsin, resulting in a spill of around 1,000 gallons of oil.

These two spills provide another stark reminder of the dangers of moving oil and ethanol along waterways and through residential areas.

It also apparently provided an opportunity for National Public Radio (NPR) to push multiple oil and rail industry talking points. And the article on NPR’s website notes NPR is sponsored by America’s Natural Gas (ANGA).

The Flipside of Accuracy

The blurb that introduces the story about the two rail incidents has a curious introduction.

Wis. Tanker Derailments Revive Debate Over Safest Way To Transport Crude

Some worry the Obama administration’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline will lead to a significant increase in the amount of crude being shipped by rail. It can also be shipped by truck.

Who are these “some” that “worry” exactly? Apparently, based on this report, just NPR employees and the oil industry lobbyist quoted in the piece. It also would appear the only one “reviving the debate” about the safest way to transport crude oil is NPR.

The radio piece is introduced with NPR host Steve Inskeep saying that they are following a story on “the flipside of rejecting the Keystone pipeline,” even though the story has nothing to do with that.

He then goes on to talk about how oil is moving from Canada by rail. And it is. However, the two trains that derailed were 1) not coming from Canada,  2) not carrying Canadian oil, and 3) not headed to the Gulf Coast. So, a completely misleading setup, but one that pushes the industry talking point that all pipelines should be approved because they are safer than rail transport.

This false argument ignores the reality that the most common destinations for Bakken crude shipments are U.S. East Coast refineries that can only be accessed by rail.

Building the Keystone XL pipeline — which would’ve run from Alberta across the US border south to connect with an existing pipeline system in Nebraska and then either to Illinois refineries or to Cushing, Oklahoma to continue south to the Gulf Coast refineries and export terminals — does nothing to change that fact.

The Tank Cars

The NPR piece then moves on to the notorious oil tank cars and notes how “safety advocates” are concerned about these tank cars. Reporter David Schaper notes that the new oil-by-rail regulations require that “Within a couple of years [the tank cars] be strengthened,” giving an unrealistic picture of how soon this issue will be addressed.

The regulations allow versions of the DOT-111 tank cars to remain on the rails carrying crude oil — like the oil involved in Lac-Megantic — until 2023. So unless a “couple” now means eight, this wasn’t even close to accurate.

The piece also quotes Karl Alexy of the Federal Railroad Administration explaining how — if the first accident in Wisconsin involved the new updated CPC-1232 cars instead of the DOT-111s — the spill may have been prevented.

This ignores the fact that there have been seven oil train accidents this year that have resulted in spills, and in five of those, also massive fires. They all involved the newer CPC-1232 cars.

Modern Brakes and Myth Making

The current braking technology on oil trains was invented in the late 1800s. The new regulations announced in May require modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems on certain oil trains by 2021 and all by 2023.

When the new regulations were announced, regulators included the following language: “This important, service-proven technology has been operated successfully for years in certain services in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere.”

As noted on DeSmog, the rail and oil industries lobbied against a requirement for ECP brakes in the new regulations, and since then have stated intentions to not let this regulation stand.

The industry has argued the ECP braking technology is “unproven,” which David Schaper repeats in this piece despite the regulators having described it as a “proven technology.”

Earlier this year, DeSmog contacted the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to clarify the agency’s position on ECPbrakes. And FRA was quite clear in its response.

“ECP brakes are a proven technology that will reduce the number of train derailments and keep more tank cars on the track if a train does derail. Delaying the adoption of ECP brakes seriously jeopardizes the citizens and communities along our nation’s freight network,” FRA communications director Matt Lehner told DeSmog.

A decade ago, the FRA commissioned consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to study the benefits and costs of ECPbrakes for the U.S. freight-rail industry. Released in 2006, the firm’s report (PDF) stated that the brakes are a “tested technology” that offers “major benefits” and could “significantly enhance” rail safety.

And yet, NPR repeats the industry talking point that the technology is unproven.

NPR also describes the braking systems as “expensive,” which is technically true. An Association of American Railroads piece opposing ECP brakes estimates a cost of $1.7 billion. That’s a lot of money, until you consider the cost of say, rebuilding downtown Lac-Megantic, which was just one oil-by-rail accident that could have been prevented byECP brakes.

Finally, NPR’s Schaper notes that because the industry says ECP brakes are unproven, this adds “uncertainty over the future of the oil train safety rules.”

The Concerned Mom

The one Wisconsin resident interviewed for the piece is Sarah Zarling. While not mentioned in the piece, Zarling became an oil train activist earlier this year over her concerns about the risks of the trains that ran so close to her home. Her concerns were obviously validated by this recent incident.

DeSmog contacted Zarling to comment on the NPR segment.

“I can’t even begin to talk about what they left out, honestly. I was so excited because he asked really good questions. He really does his homework,” Zarling explained. “So I really thought that this was going to be an opportunity to finally have a side of this story that is not told in the mainstream [media] finally be told and talked about. So the fact that I just came off as a mom cooking in her kitchen and heard this derailment is very disappointing.”

Reviving Debates, Delaying Safety

Sarah Zarling noted that she was impressed with David Schaper’s knowledge of the oil-by-rail issue and that he had “really done his homework.”

And yet the result is a segment pushing many of the top industry talking points, including setting the expectation that there is “uncertainty” that the new regulations will ever be implemented. Left out were any actual concerns or viewpoints from concerned citizen activists.

Some worry that the lack of regulation of the transportation of oil and ethanol by rail isn’t going to change because we “don’t have a high enough body count.”

As trains full of volatile Bakken oil continue to derail and the implementation of new safety regulations are many years away, the reality that at some point there will be “a high enough body count” becomes ever more likely.

Berkshire-Hathaway-owned newspaper: Nebraska has emerged as ground zero in oil transport showdown

Repost from The Omaha World-Herald

Nebraska has emerged as ground zero in oil transport showdown

September 21, 2014, By Russell Hubbard
SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD | Oakland, Nebraska, and the tracks that carry trains through town have been together for more than 100 years. But trains hauling crude oil in tanker cars through Oakland and other parts of the state are a recent development, and concerns about safety grow. Oil pipelines such as the proposed Keystone XL have their opponents as well.

OAKLAND, Neb. — If you visit here and turn off Oakland Avenue toward the railroad tracks, you just might find Brendan Murray prowling up and down the street, cataloging the cracks in the pavement and the scars on the buildings.

Safe transport of oil
SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD | Brendan Murray holds a piece of a building that fell near the tracks. He often walks Oakland Avenue cataloging cracks in the pavement and on buildings that he suspects are caused by vibrations from oil trains.

The owner of an apartment building facing the railroad tracks says problems with his 100-year-old structure accelerated with the massive increase in BNSF Railway trains hauling crude oil in tanker cars. Murray also says a derailment and crude oil fire would be deadly for Oakland, population 1,244.

“Keep it underground,” Murray says, referring to transporting crude by pipeline.

Not so fast, says Jane Kleeb. She is not a fan of crude trains either, but she is also the director of Bold Nebraska, the group opposed to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. It would bring 1 million barrels of crude oil per day across the state.

Kleeb said her group doesn’t expect the world economy to forgo fossil fuels and survive on renewables right now. But she said the pipeline proposed to transport northern crudes to refineries presents too much environmental risk.

“Accidents are going to happen and it is Nebraska that is going to wind up paying for it,” Kleeb said.

All of which leaves a rather obvious question: If neither by train nor pipeline, just how is oil supposed to get from where it is produced to where it is refined into fuels and other materials that power the U.S. economy?

With its main modes of transport assaulted on all sides, the petroleum industry faces a major showdown, and Nebraska is shaping up to be ground zero.

Central to both major U.S. railroads hauling crude oil — Union Pacific is based in Omaha and BNSF’s parent company is based here — the Cornhusker State is also the terminus of the existing Keystone pipeline and is the proposed ending point for the much-debated and delayed Keystone XL.

“Some of the people who don’t want us to transport oil don’t want us to use oil,” said John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, a group funded by oil companies. “We need to do a better job about telling our story, but we also need to be honest about the realities of energy.”

The United States last year consumed 6.89 billion barrels of petroleum products, producing 2.7 billion barrels itself, making it the global leader. Oil is everywhere — about 71 percent goes for gasoline and other fuels. Other common uses are rubber, fabrics and solvents.

There are no current replacements for oil, Felmy said, calling renewable energies promising and worthy of development but not an immediate substitute. And “choking off the supply points and the transport links would have serious implications for the economy,” Felmy said.

One of those transport links runs through Oakland. The rear of the buildings along Oakland Avenue, 20 or so brick and masonry two- and three-floor structures, face the north-south railroad tracks operated by BNSF Railway, the employer of 5,000 people in Nebraska that is owned by Omaha’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

The closest buildings, such as Murray’s 12-unit apartment building, are about 45 yards away.

The tracks and the town in Burt County have been together for more than 100 years. But the oil trains are a recent development. Oil shipments from North Dakota’s recently tapped shale formations first hit 800,000 barrels a day late last year, up from fewer than 100,000 barrels a day in 2010.

BNSF is by far the largest carrier, its oil trains entering Nebraska at South Sioux City from routes in Iowa. Oil has been a growth business for BNSF: Volumes from shale formations such as those in North Dakota have risen to 620,000 barrels per day last year, from 59,000 barrels per day in 2010.

Transporting crude has been a huge boost for BNSF, bought for $26 billion in 2009 by Omaha’s Berkshire Hathaway. BNSF operating revenue, the main financial metric by which railroads are gauged, has risen almost 60 percent since 2009, to about $22 billion last year from $14 billion.

“You can feel the ground surging when they come through now,” said the 72-year-old Murray, a graduate of Omaha’s Benson High School who later owned a general contracting company. “It’s just that the railroad has always been here and people don’t pay it much attention anymore.”

A tour of Murray’s street reveals a collapsed brick wall, lots of hairline cracks and loose masonry. Murray acknowledges that most of the buildings are 100 years old or older, and that he can’t prove the cause. But he said he suspects the culprits are the heavy liquid cargo and the increased frequency of trains passing by because of sharply higher crude shipments.

BNSF says: Nonsense. “We know of no mandated statutes requiring maximum or minimum weights for trains, although there are different weight rails according to the type, size and speed of trains,” said BNSF spokeswoman Roxanne Butler.

The railroads say oil by rail, while the subject of much debate, is quite safe.

In 2012, according to the Association of American Railroads, the incident rate for release of hazardous materials from rail cars was 0.013 per thousand carloads, down from 0.14 in 1980. That means, the association says, that 99.99 percent of hazardous rail cargo shipments are incident-free.

It is a highly regulated industry. Federal regulators set the standards for hauling crude and other hazardous materials, from the route selection and track inspections to train speeds and personnel training, the railroad association says.

“According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 2013 was the safest year in history for the rail industry,” said BNSF’s Butler. “In 2013, BNSF experienced the fewest number of mainline derailments in its history. Rail is the safest mode of land transportation for freight in general and is one of the safest ways to transport crude oil and hazardous materials.”

Butler said BNSF considers all accidents preventable, and is spending $5 billion this year on capital improvements. The Fort Worth, Texas-based company, about tied with Union Pacific as largest U.S. railroad in 2013 operating revenue, also inspects track more frequently than required by regulators, Butler said.

Union Pacific is spending $4.1 billion on capital improvements this year, much of that related to track safety.

U.P. Chief Executive Jack Koraleski said the industry also is working with the Department of Transportation to make existing crude tank cars safer, and to develop a new and stronger one.

There has never been a fatal U.S. oil-train incident, though 47 people were killed last year when one derailed and blew up in Quebec, Canada.

Koraleski, whose company employs about 8,000 people in Nebraska, said the probabilities of such accidents are small and the trade-offs worth it.

“We have been hauling crude by rail for a long time,” said Koraleski, whose oil shipments rose 20 percent last year. “If the pipelines don’t, and the railroads don’t, the alternatives are fully negative for the U.S. economy.”

As for the Keystone XL pipeline proposed by pipeline operator TransCanada, it is on hold pending permit approval by President Barack Obama.

It should not be approved, said Kleeb, the director of Bold Nebraska. She said the pipeline endangers the Ogallala Aquifer and only encourages oil companies to spend additional money chasing harder-to-get deposits, such as shale formations in the northern United States and southern Canada. Those require rocks underground to be broken up under high pressure to release the petroleum.

Kleeb says she and her group are not against fossil fuels, acknowledging that it would be impractical to go 100 percent renewable immediately. She also said ceasing production from hard-to-get deposits in North Dakota’s Bakken region isn’t going to send the economy into a malaise. The Bakken produces about a million barrels a day out of the 19 million consumed each day in the country.

“What we need to do is slow down,” Kleeb said. “The oil isn’t going anywhere. You can make all the money you need to make.”

Mark Johnson, the Nebraska spokesman for TransCanada, said pipelines are the most efficient method of transporting oil between distant points, passing along the lowest costs to consumers.

“The bottom line is that the United States needs oil and it is going to get to market one way or another,” Johnson said.

The Keystone pipeline, now about four years old, runs from the southern Canadian province of Alberta and terminates in southern Nebraska at Steele City, the proposed endpoint for the Keystone XL.

Johnson said danger to the Ogallala is low, with nature having provided the aquifer with a deep and effective filtering system of sand and rock. Pipelines and oil wells already dot the Ogallala landscape, Johnson said, and the existing Keystone pipeline has operated without serious incident.

Like oil-train accidents, pipeline incidents tend to be attention-grabbing, such as the one in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2010, when an oil pipeline broke and spilled almost 1 million gallons. Cleanup costs have approached $1 billion.

From 1994 through 2013, there were 2,715 significant pipeline incidents, according to the federal Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. That is an average of 136 a year, defined as causing death or hospitalization, incurring costs of more than $50,000, or erupting in fire or explosion. The incidents have caused 40 deaths and 132 injuries.

Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at Chicago’s DePaul University specializing in transportation, said perfect safety in the U.S. economy’s supply chain — train or pipeline or any other mode — is an unreasonable expectation.

“The accidents that happen are headline makers, but the risks are manageable,” he said. “The hype is out of proportion.”

Schwieterman also said there is a generational component to opinions on oil production and the transportation of its products.

“Oil invokes a negative, visceral reaction among young people,” Schwieterman said, acknowledging that high-profile troubles such as the 2010 BP Gulf Coast oil rig blowout has had the same effect on some people as the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989.

“People tend to forget about the value of energy independence,” he said, “and that such independence will come at a certain price.”

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.


Government numbers on crude-oil train safety don’t add up

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Government numbers on crude-oil train safety don’t add up

By Curtis Tate McClatchy Newspapers  |  Monday, Jun. 16, 2014
A train carrying tanker cars filled with crude oil passes through St. Paul, Minnesota, on February 27, 2013. The crude oil is loaded in at terminals in North Dakota and Canada and taken to refineries in the east. Jim Gehrz / Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

The State Department projects 28 more fatalities and 189 more injuries a year if crude oil moves by rail instead of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Sounds bad, but is it true?

The railroad industry and its Washington regulators boast that more than 99.99 percent of hazardous materials rail shipments reach their destinations safely.

Sounds good, but is it good enough?

The debate over moving the nation’s surging oil production by rail has generated a heated debate, and some impressive-sounding numbers that both sides have used to bolster their cases.

On closer scrutiny, however, some of those numbers don’t add up.

Earlier this month, the State Department increased its earlier projections of injuries and fatalities if Keystone XL’s 830,000 barrels a day were to move by rail. Major media organizations and pipeline supporters framed the new numbers as a downside to not building the controversial project.

But the department’s detailed explanation for its revisions shows why the numbers don’t really reveal anything about the risks of transporting crude oil by rail.

In its January Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline, the department calculated the rail impacts of the no-build scenario based on a decade of Federal Railroad Administration accident statistics. The analysis used the annual rate of injuries and fatalities per million ton-miles, a common measure of rail traffic, from 2002 to 2012.

An error report published June 6 said the original analysis underreported the potential injuries and fatalities “due to an error in search parameters used.” However, the report’s authors concede that their calculations don’t actually measure the risk of shipping crude oil. Large volumes of crude oil weren’t shipped by rail until 2011.

The 10-year injury and fatality rates were instead derived from accidents that involved trains carrying every type of cargo that moves by rail, from coal and grain to french fries and auto parts.

“Because the dataset does not distinguish petroleum or crude oil rail transportation from that of other cargo,” the department wrote, “these incident rates are not directly correlated to the type of product/commodity being transported.”

The State Department’s analysis does measure potential injuries and fatalities if more trains are put on the tracks. But that isn’t terribly useful, either, because while crude oil shipments have surged, other commodities have declined.

Changes in the economy and environmental rules mean there are considerably fewer trains of coal, long the industry’s mainstay. According to the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group, railroads moved 13,000 fewer trainloads of coal in 2012 than they did in 2008.

Moving oil by rail instead of Keystone XL would add about 4,380 trains a year, only a third of the lost coal traffic.

Fred W. Frailey, a journalist who’s covered railroads for decades and is widely regarded as the dean of writers on that subject, questioned the State Department’s analysis.

“It strikes me as totally meaningless,” he said. “It doesn’t speak at all to the danger of hauling oil.”

A spokeswoman for the department declined to comment about the report.

As several derailments involving crude oil trains made headlines in the past year, the industry has repeatedly defended its safety record. But what’s on the other side of that 99.99 percent?

According to industry figures, railroads moved 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013, up from fewer than 10,000 five years earlier. With each tank car carrying 30,000 gallons, that’s about 12 billion gallons last year.

A McClatchy analysis of oil spill data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in January showed that about 1.2 million gallons of crude oil spilled from trains in 2013 _ more than the previous 38 years combined.

If only 1.2 million of the 12 billion gallons spilled, that’s a safety record of 99.99 percent.

The country experienced two major crude-oil derailments last year. A derailment near Aliceville, Ala., in November released 748,000 gallons into a wetland. Another just after Christmas spilled 475,000 gallons near Casselton, N.D.

But the total excludes spills outside U.S. borders, even if the cargo originated domestically. More than 1.5 million gallons of North Dakota crude oil spilled in last July’s catastrophic and deadly derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The fiery accident killed 47 people and leveled much of the center of the lakeside resort town.

At the end of a two-day National Transportation Safety Board rail-safety forum in April, board member Robert Sumwalt, who spent 24 years in aviation, told the rail industry that its much-touted safety record was nothing to brag about.

“You’re in a business where that’s not good enough,” Sumwalt said.

Read more here:


Shale Daily – Keystone XL less deadly than Crude by Rail

Repost from Natural Gas Intel’s Shale Daily
[Editor: Maybe the publisher of this story hopes to promote pipeline delivery of crude with a favorable comparison to crude delivery by rail.  We might prefer neither.  The article nicely lays out numbers on injuries and fatalities in the Class I rail freight industry over the last 10 years, suggesting in paragraph 2 that the numbers refer to petroleum by rail, then clarifiying in paragraph 5 that the stats cover injuries and fatalities connected to all Class I freight.   Interesting, but not very helpful unless you want to sell the Keystone XL.  For the State Department’s errata sheet, go here.  – RS]

State Department: More Deadly Rail Wrecks if Keystone XL Not Built

Charlie Passut  |  June 9, 2014


The U.S. State Department has corrected several errors to its initial study examining the impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, including a more than fourfold increase in the estimated number of deaths and injuries from rail accidents over a 10-year period without the pipeline.

In an errata sheet released Friday, the State Department said the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) it issued in January had underestimated the number of injuries and fatalities that could occur with oil shipments via rail (see Shale Daily, Jan. 31).

“Subsequent to completion of the rail incident analysis, the department identified that the data obtained for the analysis from the Federal Railroad Administration [FRA] online safety data and statistics query system were incomplete due to an error in the search parameters used,” the State Department said. “As a result, the rail analysis was based on 40.6% of the 2002-2012 available incident data recorded on the FRA database. Therefore [several figures in the original FEIS] underreport the injury and fatality incident frequency…”

According to the State Department, the number of reported injuries increased from 700 to 2,947, and the fatalities increased from 92 to 434, after using a full annual incident dataset from FRA covering the 10-year period of 2002-2012. Using the updated statistics, the department increased its estimates for injuries from 49 to 189, and fatalities from six to 28.

“The rail incident analysis is based on nationwide statistics for Class I freight rail data obtained from the FRA database,” the State Department said. “Class I railroads are those with annual carrier operating revenues of $250 million or more, before adjustment for inflation. Because the dataset does not distinguish petroleum or crude oil rail transportation from that of other cargo, the statistics include all Class I rail freight.”

The State Department also clarified that 260 acres of land — not 190, as stated in the original FEIS — would be needed for aboveground facilities for the project, after including permanent access roads. The department also confirmed approximately 15,296 acres of land would be disturbed during the construction of Keystone XL, but clarified that the number would rise to 15,416 acres when rail sidings were included.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has been investigating a series of train derailments involving rail cars containing crude oil from the Bakken Shale, and issued emergency orders on Bakken crude in February and May. Meanwhile, two DOT agencies –FRA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — issued a safety advisory on rail cars in May.

Last July, an unattended freight train transporting Bakken crude rolled downhill, derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 42 people.

Six months later, a 90-car crude oil train loaded with Bakken crude heading to a refinery in Florida derailed in a rural area near Aliceville, AL. According to DOT, more than 20 cars derailed and at least 11 ignited, causing an explosion and fire. Although no one was injured in the incident, an undetermined amount of crude fouled a wetlands area, causing an estimated $3.9 million in damage.

On Dec. 30, 2013, a BNSF train carrying Bakken crude hit a grain train traveling in the opposite direction that had derailed earlier near Casselton, ND. The crash caused 21 cars carrying crude to derail, 18 of which subsequently ruptured and exploded. There were no injuries, but about 1,400 people were evacuated. Damage was estimated at $8 million.

The 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline requires State Department approval because it would cross an international border. TransCanada Corp. submitted a presidential permit application for the $7 billion project — designed to carry heavy crude from the Canadian oilsands from Morgan, MT, to Steele City, NE — in 2012.