Oil on the Tracks: More Oil Spills from Railcars in 2013 than in Previous Four Decades [Updated]

Oil on the Tracks: More Oil Spills from Railcars in 2013 than in Previous Four Decades [Updated]
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As a direct result of the Bakken shale oil boom, more crude oil was spilled from rail cars last year than in the previous four decades combined. That’s according to a McClatchy analysis of federal data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which governs rail transport of liquid fuels like crude.

The analysis revealed more than 1.15 million gallons of crude spilled in 2013, considerably more than the 800,000 gallons spilled from 1975 (when the government started collecting data on spills) to 2012.

The rail industry likes to boast a 99.99% success rate in delivery shipments without incident, and that number remained consistent in 2013, with 1.15 million of the roughly 11.5 billion gallons shipped by rail being spilled. What did change was the volume of actual crude being shipped by rail.

As we’ve covered before, there is a massive boom in crude-by-rail throughout North America, with a nearly 2400-percent increase in crude railcar shipments in five short years from 2008-2012. As it turned out, 2013 was another record-setting year.

These charts from the Association of American Railroads (PDF) and the EIA show the trend pretty clearly:

Bakken crude production has become so dependent on trains that an official at North Dakota’s Mineral Resources Department claimed last month that 90 percent of the state’s crude would move by rail in 2014.

The McClatchy piece features an interactive map that allows you to see the size and location of every spill, year-by-year. 

Several years show just a single spill. Most years, up until 2008, experienced fewer than a handful. There wasn’t a single spill recorded in North Dakota until 2008, when the Bakken boom truly commenced and crude-by-rail took off in the region. 

Here’s 1993. 

And here’s 2013, where the predominant shipping routes from North Dakota to Gulf Coast refineries is clear. 

You can explore the data and play around with the map at the bottom of the original McClatchy piece

The McClatchy report doesn’t factor any of the spills that have already occured in 2014, nor derailments that occur north of the border in Canada, like the fatal Lac-Mégantic explosion in August. 

Within the past year – and indeed the past few weeks – North American tracks have experienced a number of very high profile – and, again, in some cases fatal – crude-by-rail derailments, explosions, and spills. Here’s recent DeSmog coverage of some of the worst and most recent: 

  • In August, a runaway oil train tragically exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, releasing an estimated 1.58 million gallons of oil and killing 47 people.
  • In March, a Canadian Pacific Railway train jumped the tracks and spilled roughly 30,000 gallons of tar sands crude in western Minnesota.
  • In October, a train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed west of Alberta, Canada, causing an explosion and fire.
  • In November, 20 cars of a 90-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded in western Alabama
  • On December 30th, a 106-car oil train slammed into another derailed train in Casselton, North Dakota, exploding and sending a massive mushroom cloud hundreds of feet into the sky, and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of local residents. 
  • Earlier this week, a train carring Bakken crude across a Philadelphia bridge derailed and dangled precariously over an expressway and the Schuylkill River

While derailments may still be statistically rare, the massive increase in overall shipments of Bakken crude on North American railways makes some incidents inevitable. Because of the chemical nature of Bakken shale oil, this presents a unique threat. On January 2nd, the PHMSA announced that the crude oil being transported from the Bakken region “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

According to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, at a closed door meeting between federal regulators, railroad representatives, and an official of the American Petroleum Institute earlier this month, the rail industry agreed to take voluntary steps to immediately make their crude-by-rail shipments safer. What exactly these voluntary measures would include is so far a mystery.  

Meanwhile, regulators at PHMSA are expanding the so-called “Bakken blitz” to investigate the chemical makeup of crude from the Bakken shale plays in order to determine whether more strict regulations of their transport are necessary. 

Updated: On Thursday afternoon, the National Transportation Safety Board released a set of three recommendations to address the risks of transporting crude by rail. Working with counterparts at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, the NTSB 

According to the NTSB:

The first would require expanded hazardous materials route planning for railroads to avoid populated and other sensitive areas.

The second recommendation to FRA and PHMSA is to develop an audit program to ensure rail carriers that carry petroleum products have adequate response capabilities to address worst-case discharges of the entire quantity of product carried on a train.

The third recommendation is to audit shippers and rail carriers to ensure that they are properly classifying hazardous materials in transportation and that they have adequate safety and security plans in place.

The Association of American Railroads told reporters that it agrees with the safety board’s recommendations“[T]hey align with our previous calls for increased federal tank car safety standards” and other measures, the group said. BNSF and Canadian Pacific also pledged to work with regulators, communities and others to enhance rail safety, but expressed public doubt about the feasbility of rerouting around metropolitan and highly populated areas. 

Oil on the Tracks: More Oil Spills from Railcars in 2013 than in Previous Four Decades [Updated]
Ben Jervey is a Senior Fellow for DeSmog and directs the KochvsClean.com project. He is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher, specializing in climate change and energy systems and policy. Ben is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor for GOOD Magazine, and wrote a longstanding weekly column titled “The New Ideal: Building the clean energy economy of the 21st Century and avoiding the worst fates of climate change.” He has also contributed regularly to National Geographic News, Grist, and OnEarth Magazine. He has published three books—on eco-friendly living in New York City, an Energy 101 primer, and, most recently, “The Electric Battery: Charging Forward to a Low Carbon Future.” He graduated with a BA in Environmental Studies from Middlebury College, and earned a Master’s in Energy Regulation and Law at Vermont Law School. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.

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