North Dakota Derailment Shows Dark Side of America’s Oil Boom

As shipments of oil by rail skyrocket, environmentalists worry about the toll of hauling America's crude

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Darrin Radermacher

A fireball shoots up at the site of a train derailment near the North Dakota town of Casselton, Dec. 30, 2013.

Here’s the good news about Monday’s massive train accident in North Dakota: it looks like no one was hurt. And that might seem amazing after seeing video of the disaster, which saw a freight train carrying crude oil collide with a train carrying grain that had derailed earlier. The collision sent fireballs shooting up more than 100 feet, and left the oil train in flames. The train cars burned through the night, and officials called on the 2,400 residents of nearby Casselton, N.D. to leave their homes as the winds shifted overnight, blowing black soot toward the town.

Still, the fact that apparently no one was injured in the explosion is mostly a matter of luck — not to mention the general lack of people in North Dakota. Had the accident occurred near a more populated town, we might have seen something closer to the catastrophe that struck the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, where a runway train hauling 72 carloads of crude oil derailed, triggering an explosion that killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings. Nor are these two the only recent accidents involving freight trains carrying crude oil. In November, a train hauling oil to the Gulf Coast from North Dakota derailed in Alabama, setting off more fires, and in October, a train carrying crude derailed in Alberta, igniting a blaze and causing the evacuation of nearby residents.

These accidents came at the end of the year in which shipments of oil by rail boomed, increasing 17 times faster last year than domestic production of oil — which is itself booming. With the middle of the country brimming with crude oil thanks to the shale revolution in North Dakota — as well as Canadian oil sands crude coming down from Alberta — there’s a desperate need to move oil to markets on the Gulf Coast and East Coast. With pipeline construction slower, and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline still being debated, oil companies have turned to rail, which can quickly connect remote areas of production to markets. The rail industry is now hauling more crude than at any time since the days of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil a century ago. All of which raises the question: Is all this safe?

(MORE: State Dept: Build the Keystone Pipeline or Not, the Oil Sands Crude Will Flow)

Yes and no. Compared to moving oil by pipeline, shipping it by rail carries a greater risk of catastrophic accidents and death, for the simple reason that trains, more than pipelines, travel through populated areas. Should something go wrong — as it did in Lac-Megantic in July — the consequences can be horrendous. That said, accidents remain extremely rare; according to data from the Association of American Railroads, 99.9977% of rail hazmat shipments, which includes crude oil, reach their destination without a spill.

Pipelines spill more often than rail — over the past decade, pipelines have spilled 474,441 barrels of oil, compared to the 2,268 barrels spilled over the same time by rail. Pipeline spills also tend to be larger than rail spills — witness the 2010 Enbridge oil spill, when a burst pipeline led to more than 23,000 barrels of oil pouring into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Fears over similar accidents have helped put the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on hold (environmentalists have raised concerns that spills involving oil sands crude will be especially difficult to clean). But pipeline spills remain rare as well, and the ones that do occur pose a more direct threat to the environment than to people — unlike rail accidents.

Environmentalists will use North Dakota’s rail accident as more evidence that the rapidly growing movement of oil around the country is patently unsafe — especially if it involves oil sands crude. And it’s true that with so much more oil being moved by rail — railroads hauled 34.2 million barrels of oil in 2012, more than six times  what was shipped in 2011 — there’s a greater chance that something will go wrong, especially if inspections aren’t up to snuff, something that goes for pipelines as well. But with even President Barack Obama hailing the boom in U.S. oil production — which is providing a needed boost for the economy — greens will face an uphill battle in trying to restrict the movement of domestic oil. That will be the case as long as we remain almost totally dependent on oil as a transportation fuel. Remember the public anger over offshore drilling after the 2010 BP oil spill? A little more than three years later, the number of drilling permits issued for the Gulf reached a record high. Until demand is stilled, the oil will flow — whatever the consequences.

(MORE: Pipeline Politics: Keystone, Advocates and Analysts)