Ecocentric

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)

25 comments
JohnKovacich
JohnKovacich

there are over 6000 train derailments every year.this is just bound to happen.

justplncate
justplncate

How convenient! Environmentalists create an unsafe scenario with their obstructionism.  Then blame the condition THEY helped to create!

glubber
glubber

Come on Bryan, oil sand crude is not more dangerous than other crude. Moveing it around by train has it's risks. Finding other more safer  ways is perhaps recommended. You could use your intellect to find these other ways!

BestoinkDooley
BestoinkDooley

Unfortunately, the current shale oil boom is only a temporary reprieve from our energy problem. Those shale oil wells deplete very fast( up to 50% the first year) and unlike conventional oil production, have a low energy return to energy investment ratio, making it expensive oil. New wells are continuously drilled to compensate for depleting wells and only  last a few years. The news media has been giddy ballyhooing  the shale oil boom as if it were going to be our energy panacea. However, by the early 2020s the shale oil boom will be over and we will be back where we were: dependent on depleting domestic finite oil resources and imports. Our civilization is totally dependent on oil,not just for transportation, but for hundreds of products ranging from plastics to fertilizers and pesticides that make modern high-yield agriculture possible. The world is currently consuming 89 million barrels of oil every day- and we're getting close to max possible peak production. By 2030 the world will be facing a supply side shortfall that's going to be catastrophic. Demand crash? Not with an additional projected 2.5 billion people by mid century and big countries hungry for the stuff.That's right, readers, within your lifetime you are going to witness the second half of the Oil Age, the end of cheap oil, and civilization as you've known it will change dramatically. It would take decades to prepare for widespread conversion to other energy sources ...but  that's not going to happen in time to avert disaster. Look for a world wide collapse by 2050. Too many people with a depleting, finite resource base. Long term planning is not something humans do well, too much denial. .By the end of the century what oil remains in the ground will be uneconomic to retrieve and  the Oil Age,a brief time in human history, roughly about 1900-2100, a time of unprecedented human expansion, fueled by cheap, concentrated, portable energy will be over.  It's going to be a Mad Max world.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Ahh yes, bring on the cry-baby puff-pieces that hyper-generalize one accident (that happened to involve oil) to mean that society should be nervous about the entire industry. 

Similarly, is the media aware of the massive tons of natural gas, petrochemicals, volatile chemical compounds (and oil) that are shipped on a daily basis?  Is the media's only response to question the rare "dangers" of utilizing such modes of transportation?  Why doesn't the media use their bully pulpit to bring in industry experts, and trump up more effective ways/methods, instead of trying to scare the general public?

DouglasHines
DouglasHines

That's why I don't drive a gas car anymore.  The inflated price of gasoline along with monopolistic tendencies of refining and distribution companies means that buying gasoline, because of these oligarchs, is a rip off all the way around.


I drive an electric car and have never been happier.  I am about to go on a 2,000 mile trip that will cost less than $100 in energy.  Next year that same trip will cost about half that.


Electricity is everywhere.  We don't have to ship it, refine it, and we can't spill it.  And every time we make it cleaner, we will clean up more and more automobiles.


Great articles but you left out the Keystone pipeline (not XL but existing) spill.  It suffered a major spill that cause a week long evacuation of a subdivision that wasn't even aware of the fact that the pipeline traveled under their houses.

SandyMcMahon
SandyMcMahon

The environmentalist perspective on this is full of contradictions.

They oppose the Keystone pipeline, but are appalled when accidents happen due to transportation of crude by rail.

They argue for an emphasis on green energy but are oblivious to the simple fact that the US economy runs on hydrocarbons as both the most cost effective and only source of energy which given current science and technology can power the US ane most other world economies.

They hew to the pronouncements of the UN's IPCC, but don't understand that the UN is a political, not a scientific body, and the the underlying premise of the IPCC is a massive wealth transfer from developed to less developed economies; the problem is that in these economies most of the money will flow into the bank accounts of the leadership class with very little ever getting to the people within these economies or solving any problems associated with global warming.

The environmentalists have some valid points, however their pursuit of these points is so bound up in contradictions that they are ineffectual.

karl2632
karl2632

This is like saying the little pain from an injection shows the downside to eliminating polio.  We are so much better off supplying our own energy than importing it that an occasional accident is a tiny price to pay.  I agree with GaryDMN that piplines would be a better solution.

GaryDMN
GaryDMN

This train accident shows the dangers of demonizing pipelines politically and putting support behind Warren Buffets railroad (BurlingtonNorthern) and the union workers that they employ, for political reasons. Pipelines are safer, more environmentally friendly and lower cost than trains or trucks. Even the Obama administrations own study validates this, but is ignored for political reasons.

Mlebauer
Mlebauer

@BestoinkDooley

They deplete quickly, but the drillers then extend the bore and refrack, or move the bore to an adjacent layer. That's the nature of tight oil resources. There's plenty of oil in them, but it's higher maintenance than a conventional porous reservoir to produce.

As to the supply side shortfall, there are other unconventional resources: Kerogen/oil shale, and methane hydrates, that could be produced at higher costs. They are present in immense volumes that can extend the fossil fuel age out centuries at present consumption rates.

Either you don't understand that, or you do and are propagating inaccuracies to advocate for an anti-oil opinion.

justplncate
justplncate

@DouglasHinesA single natural gas leak in your basement can cause an evacuation of the neighborhood.  That is the nature of safety regulations.  Err on the side of caution.  You cherrypickers digust me!

Mlebauer
Mlebauer

@DouglasHines 

Electricity may be everywhere, but it takes a long time to recharge an electric vehicle. And electricity comes from something, mostly natural gas, coal, and nuclear. All of these have something being shipped to power plants.

GaryDMN
GaryDMN

@DouglasHines- Its hard to take you seriously when you say people didn't even know a pipeline was under their house. That's silly, even if they were allowed to build over a pipeline, there would be no way anyone could buy a home where it wasn't disclosed to them, multiple ways. By the way, they don't build anything over oil pipelines. The only pipelines running under residential lots are water and natural gas.

micbedn
micbedn

@SandyMcMahon Pros and cons are based on trying to predict the future.  The problem is how reckless will people get with the enviroment when greed is their motivation.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@karl2632  

Please explain to me how we are "so much better off supplying our own energy"?

There is no economic benefit - especially if the domestic oil only CAN BE sold on the global markets.  It doesn't HAVE TO BE SOLD that way, it only has to have the economic potential to be sold that way.  Why is that important?  Because domestic oil prices are about 15%-25% less than global oil prices, and is usually refined locally (refineries are all over the Midwest), the refined products typically are less costly, which means less profitable.

But domestic oil ABLE to be profitably sold on global markets is sold domestically at global market prices regardless of where it was acquired or how it was transported.  That means if its more profitable to transport it by train or pipeline to be refined and sold than refine it locally at lower transportation costs, and lower price per barrel, they will sell it at the higher global price regardless of where it's refined.

So the bottom line is profitability.

And because global oil prices are beyond the control of the United States - even if we cut the consumption in HALF, the price of gas would remain the same, or go higher because they'd just sell the excess away to other markets and charge more for the transportation costs - there is absolutely NO fiscal advantage to "oil independence".

Also there's this little tid-bit that's kind of been overlooked.  The rush of extracting "new" oil reserves indicates that there's not nearly as much as once was thought, and that getting out what they think is there will rapidly become economically nonviable (some estimates say it's within ten years, based on today's consumption.  Others say sooner.).  That means our "oil independence" is going to be very short-lived.

Finally, the KIND of oil that's being pumped today is considerably more corrosive than normal (in part due to the nature of the chemicals used to pump it out of tar sands, but mostly due to the high acidity of the oil that's extracted).  This means pipelines (and rail cars) will corrode a hell of a lot faster.  Given that they've had to "repair" nearly 500 bad sections in the Keystone XL SO FAR (this before it's pumped a drop of oil), and that it's the perfect target for terrorist acts, well, let's just day the folks a couple of hundred miles on either side of its path have a hell of a lot of good reasons to worry about it.

Seems to me a short-term, messy, toxic energy source is hardly ideal to serve long-term U.S. energy interests.

DouglasHines
DouglasHines

@GaryDMN Don't forget that pipelines have spill 10 times more oil than trains.  Remember the Keystone (existing not XL) that had a spill this past summer?

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@GaryDMN@DouglasHines 

And natural gas mains which have been known to blow up under homes.  Let's face it, a residential pipeline isn't going to do much damage to anything other than a residence.  But the main pipeline running down the middle of the street will take out the whole block - and there's no disclosure about THAT hazard, now, is there?

DouglasHines
DouglasHines

@micbedn @SandyMcMahon This is not even a question.  We know that profit motives cause companies to do all kinds of things to cut corners.  Unless you put them out of business of environmental catastrophes, they will continue to occur.  These companies should bare all of the costs of any spill and not be protected in the least by courts that are friendly to them.

GaryDMN
GaryDMN

@DouglasHines@GaryDMN - per spill they may spill more, but putting flammable/explosive substances on wheels and moving it through populated areas carries more risk. Pipeline spill amounts can be reduced if they monitor the pipeline more closely, so they can contain them faster.

GaryDMN
GaryDMN

@micbedn@GaryDMN- they could employ more people if they transported oil by donkey cart too, but it would help the economy. Low cost oil and gas helps the economy and consumers. Cronyism helps neither.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@GaryDMN@micbedn 

Gary, what makes you think low cost oil will help the economy?   Oil prices are based on where the oil is sold.  Not how much it cost to get it there.  If it CAN be sold on the global markets, it will sell at global market prices - typically 15%-25% higher than domestic oil prices.  If getting it to the global markets to be sold costs more than that, then it will be sold on the domestic markets.

In neither case is the cost low.

Once the Keystone pipeline is finished (Stage III), ALL domestic oil will be able to be sold on the global markets, and the domestic oil market exchange will close.  That means higher priced oil and higher energy costs, all at a very nice profit for the oil companies which receive tax breaks ($1.2 trillion dollars worth between 2003 and 2010 alone).

Now, I could be wrong about the detrimental effect on the economy of higher gas prices, but it seems to me every time the price of gas goes up, so does everything else except the wages needed to pay for it, and the economy slows down to a crawl.

I agree that cronyism doesn't help, and the cronyism between the GOP and the oil companies has pretty much ensured this set-up.  Studies intended to discredit alternative energy sources are paid for by the fossil fuel industry to keep this dirty, dying industry in business.  And as long as they have 20 trillion dollars in profits (2003-2012), they can afford to make people like you who seem reasonable think things that aren't true, or pay people like you to spread their lies.

Cronyism isn't good.  Neither is stark ignorance.