Oil By Rail: Following the Bomb Trains

About the Oil By Rail: Following the Bomb Trains Series

The success of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) created an oil boom from fields in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation. Without the usual infrastructure such as pipelines or ports in place to move this glut of oil, a new oil-by-rail industry was born to fill that role.

However, as more and longer trains are shipping increasing amounts of Bakken crude oil, North America has seen another consequence of this new industry: train derailments resulting in massive fires and explosions. As a result, these trains have earned a new nickname: bomb trains.

What is at the root of these accidents? How can the industry improve its safety record? Are regulators up to the task?

Check out our ongoing coverage of oil trains.

Main image: Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment. Credit: Sûreté du Québec police, CC BYSA 1.0

In This Series

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The Biden administration’s cancelation of the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline in January appears to be driving a revolutionary improvement in Canadian oil-by-rail safety that could protect the public fr...
Opinion
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On December 22, 2020, a train carrying over 100 tank cars of Bakken oil derailed and caught fire in the small Washington town of Custer. This accident highlights how the regulatory system has faile...
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New regulations were announced by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in July 2020 allowing the transportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail. That same mont...
Analysis
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A train carrying over 100 cars of volatile Bakken oil derailed in Washington state, causing the evacuation of the town of Custer. At least two of the train cars ruptured and the oil ignited and bur...
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Nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups against the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), c...
Analysis
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On July 6, Reuters published an article on the potential for a resurgence of moving crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota across the country by rail, due to a judge’s decision to shut do...
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The federal agency overseeing the safe transport of hazardous materials released a stunning explanation of its May 11 decision striking down a Washington state effort to regulate trains carrying vo...
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There are only two things that have made any real difference in protecting the public from the dangers of oil trains: activism that has stopped new infrastructure, and low oil prices. While activis...
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Early in the morning of February 6, an oil train derailed and caught fire near Guernsey, Saskatchewan, resulting in the Canadian village's evacuation. This is the second oil train to derail and bur...
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As 2019 drew to a close and the new year ramps up, a number of signs point to the growing risks of transporting oil and gas by rail, with little government oversight to speak of: from increasing oi...
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On October 23, New York Attorney General Letitia James, joined by attorneys general from Maryland, New Jersey, and California, sent a letter of support to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials ...
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President Trump has made clear that he wants to move the nation's glut of fracked natural gas onto trains and then to ships for sale abroad. In response to Trump's April executive order pushing fe...
Opinion
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Six years after the oil train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec — which claimed 47 lives and destroyed the downtown of this small lakeside town — The New York Times reviewed what pro...
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The oil industry in North Dakota and Montana — home to the prolific Bakken Shale Formation — faces an “impossible choice.” That's according to a new petition to federal regulators from the attorney...
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On July 6, 2013, a train hauling crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, resulting in fires and explosions that killed 47 people and wiped out a large part of ...
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On June 6, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) announced that the company Energy Transport Solutions LLC had applied for a special permit to transport liquefied ...
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This week, the Trump administration’s Department of Transportation (DOT) withdrew another rail safety recommendation originally proposed during the Obama administration. In the process, the agency ...
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Early in the morning on April 24, an ethanol train derailed, exploded, and burned near Fort Worth, Texas, reportedly destroying a horse stable, killing three horses, and causing the evacuation of n...
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On April 10, first responders in Durham, North Carolina, responded to a suspected natural gas leak. While they were evacuating people from the area, the gas exploded, killing one person and injurin...
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In an attempt to reduce the risk of fiery oil train accidents, the state of Washington is working to pass a bill that would limit the vapor pressure of oil on trains to below 9 pounds per square in...
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Last year, Canada exported a record amount of tar sands oil to the U.S., despite low oil prices leading to major losses once again for the struggling tar sands industry. That achievement required a...
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The government of Alberta, Canada, the heart of tar sands country, recently announced plans to get into the oil-by-rail business. Attempting to work around a lack of pipelines, the provincial gover...
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The only way to have a rail accident that is “eerily similar” to the Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster that killed 47 people and wiped out the small Quebec downtown is if a massive regulatory failure...
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As Canadian oil-by-rail numbers reach record new volumes (and expected to rise), Canada's Transportation Safety Board (TSB) announced recently that it would no longer list shipping the hazardous ma...
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While a second oil-by-rail boom is well underway in North America, both the U.S. and Canada are taking steps that ignore or undermine the lessons and regulatory measures to improve safety since the...
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In the five years since the oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, claimed 47 lives, the world has learned much about the risks that hauling oil by rail poses. One of the clearest lessons is h...
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On June 22, a train carrying Canadian crude oil derailed in northwestern Iowa, releasing an estimated 230,000 gallons of oil into a flooded river. As a result of the derailment, over 30 rail tank c...
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The oil industry learned an important lesson from its rush to move by train the highly flammable oil drilled in North Dakota's Bakken Shale. The lesson wasn't that those oil trains were unsafe and ...
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Investors love a good comeback story and right now oil by rail seems to be a story they're pushing to justify investment in rail companies, especially Canadian ones. But with little change in safe...
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The Motley Fool has been advising investors on “How to Profit From the Re-Emergence of Canada’s Crude-by-Rail Strategy.” But what makes transporting Canadian crude oil by rail attractive to investo...
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On January 29, Washington Governor Jay Inslee rejected a permit required for Tesoro-Savage to build the Vancouver Energy oil-by-rail facility, the largest such project in the nation, at the Port of...
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The train engineer and two additional rail workers who faced charges for the deadly July 2013 oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, were acquitted on Friday after the jury deliberated for nin...
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This week, three port commissioners in Vancouver, Washington, put another nail in the coffin for Vancouver Energy's proposed crude-by-rail facility when the commission voted to not renew the compan...
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The election of Donald Trump was a big win for the oil and rail industries. Shortly after the election, Edward Hamberger, CEO of the trade group the Association of American Railroads, addressed a c...
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The latest fatal Amtrak accident in Washington state was another reminder of the reality of the cost-benefit approach to regulating safety. When the rail industry and its lobbyists are able to arg...
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Nothing seems able to derail the rise in Canadian tar sands oil production. Low prices, canceled pipelines, climate realities, a major oil company announcing it will no longer develop heavy oils, d...
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On December 4, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it would repeal a critical safety regulation for modern braking systems on the same oil trains which have derailed, spilled oil, caug...
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In another major blow to the West Coast oil-by-rail industry, a Washington state agency voted unanimously to recommend Governor Jay Inslee reject the Vancouver Energy oil terminal. Proposed for con...
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A new study by the National Academy of Sciences concludes that the rail industry should do more to improve the safety of transporting oil and ethanol by rail, which includes addressing track safety...
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On July 29, 2013 Thomas J. Herrmann of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) wrote a letter to Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API). The letter was in respon...
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Damning new testimony from an engineer of the locomotive involved in the deadly 2013 oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, reveals several ways corporate cost-cutting directly led to the acci...
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A new government report finds that only 9 percent of all the rail tank cars transporting flammable liquids last year met the stricter safety requirements of regulations set in 2015, which were mean...
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Ronald Batory — President Trump’s nominee to lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) — will be pushing for the controversial self-regulatory approach to safety known as “performance-based re...
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A new bill by one of the rail industry’s favorite senators looks to change how the industry is regulated to allow “market forces to improve rail safety.” In June, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who hap...
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“We were very lucky in this instance,” Plainfield Fire Chief David Riddle said. “There was no fire, nobody got hurt by the grace of God.” As the residents of Lac-Megantic were preparing to acknowl...
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This week, a court in California overturned a permit allowing the expansion of an oil-by-rail terminal near Bakersfield, California. The opinion from that court ruling reads like a case study for c...
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USD Partners, a rail terminal operator owned in part by Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs, has signed a nearly three year deal to facilitate moving tar sands by train from where it is extracted in Al...
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Despite a string of recent successes by West Coast communities to block the construction of oil-by-rail facilities, the oil industry has no plans to give up using rail to move oil to the West Coast...
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New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has joined with attorneys general from California, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, and Washington in calling for limits on the volatility of crude oil tran...
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When President Donald Trump signed executive orders pushing for the approval and expedited review of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, an oil industry-funded think tank put out an intere...
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Over and over again, attendees of the 2016 Energy by Rail Conference heard that “LNG by rail is ready to go!” LNG, or liquefied natural gas, is methane that has been cooled to the point of being a...
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Brian Stevens first learned about the Lac-Megantic disaster — in which an unattended oil train caught fire and exploded, killing 47 people in the Quebec town — when he saw the news reports on TV. ...
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In July 2015, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in Culbertson, Montana resulting in an oil spill of 35,000 gallons — more than the contents of a full rail tank car. But unlike all of the ...
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“The community of Benicia, [California,] in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities ...
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In the most recent oil-by-rail accident in Mosier, Oregon the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) concluded that the tank cars involved — the jacketed CPC-1232 type — “performed as expected.” So ...
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The cause of the most recent bomb train derailment and fire in Mosier, OR has been determined to be lag bolts that had sheared off resulting in the derailment. This once again raises concerns that ...
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“I would agree with the opponents. This is not about saving jobs…This is about profits. But gee, what is wrong with profits?” Those were the words of San Luis Obispo County Planning Commissioner J...
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A year ago, when Federal regulators announced new rules for “high hazard” trains moving crude oil and ethanol, the oil industry protested that the rules were too strict. The main point of contentio...
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In January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released the report “Rigged Justice - How Weak Enforcement Lets Corporate Offenders Off Easy” detailing what is known as regulatory capture. A key point ma...
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Earlier this year the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry’s top lobbying group, produced a new report on rail safety. While the report ignored serious safety improvements such as ...
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In the recent New York Times article “The Wreck of Amtrak 188” Federal Railroad Administration leader Sarah Feinberg explained the advantages of the rail safety technology known as positive train c...
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The speed and scale with which the oil and rail industries created the North American oil-by-rail infrastructure was impressive. And amazingly under the radar for the most part — until the trains s...
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“Railroad rules have been written in blood.” This line was included in the annual report of the Commissioner of Railroads for the state of Michigan — in 1901. The idea was that safety rules were on...
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In September 2014, five individuals — now known as the Delta 5 — blockaded a train transporting Bakken shale oil at the Delta rail yard in Everett, Washington. This action was taken to oppose the k...
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New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s recent petition to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to require oil producers to stabilize oil before it is shipped by rail is...
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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...
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On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where...
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The worst onshore oil spill in United States history was the Kalamazoo River tar sands pipeline spill in 2010 with estimates of one million gallons of oil spilled. In comparison, the oil-by-rail ac...
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In June of 2014, a representative of oil-by-rail giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) attended a meeting with regulators where the American Association of Railroads (AAR) lobbied against any s...
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CSX is one of the major rail companies that is profiting from the oil-by-rail boom led by North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil. On September 28th, a day that is apparently national “good neighbor day,” ...
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A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that 500,000 students in California attend schools within a half-mile of rail tracks used by oil trains, and more than another 500,000 ar...
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Roosevelt County chief deputy sheriff Corey Reum was one of the first responders to the recent Bakken oil train derailment in Montana, a few miles from the North Dakota border. “We're lucky it did...
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As documented on DeSmog, the new oil-by-rail regulations contain major concessions to the oil and rail industries as the result of relentless lobbying during the rulemaking process. One logical saf...
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The oil industry and the government regulators in charge of regulating the industry don’t understand the basic science of oil. This is the core of the argument used to justify why they continue to ...
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As oil train protests continue across North America to mark the two-year anniversary of the Lac-Megantic disaster, trouble is brewing in Texas. At the recent Crude Markets and Storage Summit energy...
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“It’s corporate greed versus the common good, whether it’s rail safety or climate change.” Those were the words of Lowen Berman, a Portland activist involved in a blockade of oil train tracks to m...
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Although insisting the industry is not to blame, several of the oil companies involved in the fatal Lac-Megantic oil train accident in 2013 have agreed to contribute to a fund to compensate the fam...
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Today at the annual North American Rail Shippers Association, Carl Ice, president of rail company Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) had his keynote address interrupted by members of Rising Tide C...
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In what came as a welcome surprise to activists in Albany, New York, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) reversed an earlier decision and now will require a full envir...
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The latest oil train derailment and explosion in Heimdal, North Dakota is another frightening reminder of the danger this industry poses to communities across the country. Thankfully evacuating Hei...
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The long-awaited oil-by-rail regulations released today are basically a guidebook for the oil and rail industries to continue doing business as usual when it comes to moving explosive Bakken crude ...
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A seemingly innocuous email about two people getting coffee in August of 2014 helps shed light on the behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts to shape the oil-by-rail regulations that have given the oil...
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“The system is fundamentally broken.” Those were the words of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) during an April 14th hearing on oil-by-rail and pipeline safety. For anyone expecting the soon to be releas...
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With the recent run of exploding oil train accidents, it isn’t surprising that the rail industry has publicly expressed concern about hauling highly flammable oils like Bakken light crude and dilut...
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When a CN train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire last weekend near Gogama, Ontario, it became the fifth loaded oil train to leave the tracks in North America in the past two months — and...
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With the first crash and explosion of a unit train of tar sands oil in Canada in February, we learned that the conventional wisdom among people covering the oil-by-rail industry regarding the flamm...
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A month ago there was a close call for the oil-by-rail industry. As part of the Cromnibus bill that President Obama signed in December, new oil-by-rail regulations were supposed to be finalized and...
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“I just want to make sure that we are all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry and we want to work together on improving that industry.” Those were the words of Rep. Jeff Denham...