“Recent surge in spills makes tough safety rules imperative”
By Michael E. Kraft
Hardly a month goes by without news of a train derailment that spills oil, or of an underground pipeline that leaks somewhere in the nation. We’ve been lucky that most had relatively minor impacts.
Increasingly, however, we are seeing major accidents that pollute the land or rivers or that threaten public health and safety.
In February, a train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude oil derailed in West Virginia, with 26 rail cars leaving the tracks and many catching fire. The accident required evacuation of hundreds of families and also polluted a tributary of the historic Kanawha River. An oil train derailment, explosion, and fire in Casselton, N.D., in late 2013 required a mass evacuation of the town’s residents.
Such accidents speak to the danger of transporting highly flammable oil and gas around the country through often-antiquated infrastructure in need of modernization and enhanced safety requirements. Some improvements have been made to rail car safety, but more needs to be done with the tracks themselves as well as the cars.
As extensive as our existing pipeline networks are, they have insufficient capacity to handle the increasing amounts of oil and gas being produced.
New pipelines have been proposed, with most of them receiving far less media coverage than the contentious Keystone XL pipeline. But even if approved, the construction of new pipelines could take years. This is why we rely on rail, truck and barge transportation rather than pipelines to move oil to refineries.
The increased volume of oil being shipped by rail, sometimes called “virtual pipelines,” is astonishing. In 2008, only 9,500 rail carloads were shipped to U.S. refineries. By 2014, the number had soared to more than 400,000, or 42 times as much.
Why the enormous increase in rail traffic? In the past six years, domestic oil production leaped by more than 50 percent. It reached 9.4 million barrels a day by 2015. There are too few pipelines to handle that volume, so producers use rail instead. Fully two-thirds of North Dakota’s shale oil field production is being shipped by rail.
Studies by the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service concluded that the increase in rail shipment raises serious concerns about the way oil is packaged in rail cars, the use of trains carrying as many as 80 to 120 oil cars, and the capacity for emergency response, particularly in rural areas.
It is thus no surprise that accidents have surged. According to federal data, between 1975 and 2012, railroads spilled a total of 800,000 gallons of crude oil. But in 2013 alone, the amount of oil spilled totaled more than 1 million gallons.
These accidents tell us that stricter rules, both federal and state, are imperative to protect the public and the environment. The Obama administration is developing new regulations that could help. Many states are considering similar actions.
We also should make sure that key federal and state agencies, such as the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in the U.S. Department of Transportation, have the resources and staffs to do their jobs.
Many have long been poorly financed and understaffed. The PHMSA, for example, has a budget of just $200 million and only 500 employees to oversee 40,000 companies engaged in the commercial transportation of petroleum products and hazardous materials.
At a minimum, rail cars need to be better designed, and built with thicker steel, to carry flammable cargo. It is the industry’s own interest to take actions like this.
The July 2013 oil car derailment and massive fire in Quebec in Canada killed 47 people and caused an estimated $1 billion in liability for the railroad. The United States and Canada should not continue to treat rail shipment of oil as though it poses no real danger.
Michael E. Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Readers may write him at UWGB, 2420 Nicolet Drive, MAC B310, Green Bay, WI 54311 or email him at [email protected] .