A year ago today, in the small hours of the morning, a parked oil train slipped its brakes, rolled downhill, and derailed in a small town in Quebec. When the tank cars breached, they caught fire and erupted into a towering fireball that leveled several blocks of town and incinerated 47 people almost instantly.
That horrific disaster ushered in a new era of fear about crude oil-by-rail shipments.
Two weeks earlier Sightline had published the first regional inventory anywhere of oil-by-rail projects. We pointed out that Oregon and Washington are home to nearly a dozen active or proposed oil train depots that in aggregate would move about as much crude as the Keystone XL Pipeline—and far more than the region’s oil refining capacity. We released the report widely, and the response we got back sounded a lot like crickets chirping.
But after the explosion in Quebec, our phones started ringing off the hook.
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As a result of growing interest in the subject, we devoted ourselves to researching and explaining the issue. Here are some of the most important things we’ve learned about oil-by-rail since Lac-Mégantic:
- Crude oil haulage is the single biggest growth sector for US railroads, and oil-by-rail shipments are up at least 57 times above pre-2009 levels.
- There is no consensus about why the light shale oil from the Bakken formation (the source of the oil in the Quebec train, and the source of the oil in Northwest trains now) is so risky. Some suggest it’s concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, while others point to volatile compounds and an exceptionally low flash point. Curiously, the American Petroleum Institute argues that all oil is as dangerous as Bakken oil.
- Federal safety inspectors have known for years—for decades, really—that the most common oil tank cars are riddled with design flaws that render oil transport inherently risky. Yet despite overwhelming evidence, both the oil and rail industries lobby policymakers to stall or defang new safety regulations. In fact, the industry has plainly told the feds they they have no plans to remove the older unsafe tank cars from service any time soon. Worse yet, even the newer model tank cars for carrying oil have design flaws, cannot safely be intermingled with older cars, and in at least one case actually derailed and caught fire.
- Railroads are so under-insured against the risk of catastrophic accident that they are, for all intents and purposes, uninsured against the costs of a Lac-Mégantic-style explosion in a densely populated area. If something awful happened, taxpayers would be on the hook. Regardless, the dominant railroad in the Northwest, BNSF, continues to route loaded oil trains through the heart of cities including, for example, within just a few feet of a major league baseball stadium during the ninth inning.
- Despite the fact that the Northwest region sees about nine freight train derailments each month, BNSF maintains a rocky relationship with its workers. The railroad opposed union-supported state legislation to require two-man crews on trains, legislation that responded in part to the fact that the Lac-Mégantic train was operated by a solo engineer, just as it opposed even basic information disclosure about oil shipping. Workers for the railroad complain that BNSF sometimes prioritizes speed over thorough safety procedures and that it requires crews operating trains to stay awake for as long as 24 hours.
- The “Bakken boom,” as the big shale oil extraction bonanza in North Dakota is commonly called, could well turn out to be a classic bubble. If federal regulators issue an emergency order to stop shipping oil in older-model unsafe tank cars—already thoroughly justified and well within their authority—Bakken oil extraction would, by necessity, decline dramatically because there would be no way to move it to market.
Yet the risks remain very real for communities across North America, and particularly in the Northwest, where the oil industry has its sights set on a massive increase in oil trains. Most controversial are three proposed terminals in Grays Harbor and a titanic oil transfer facility planned for the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington.