Train Derailments: A Case for Keystone XL?

Recent Train Derailments

Railcar safety has been a hot topic recently, most notably after the derailments in North Dakota and Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The DOT-111 tank car, center of the controversy, has been criticized for years about its lack of safety. The issue is not that the tanker causes derailments, but that its flawed design is leading to these disasters. The steel shell is generally considered too thin to withstand an impact during an accident, and its unloading valves and fittings are prone to breakage. Since October 2011, newly built railcars contain thicker tank shells and puncture-resistant shields on the cars’ ends. However, the transportation industry has been hesitant to retrofit existing cars.

Areas of New York state recently went through a second round of rail yard inspections to mitigate possible failures hidden in the DOT-111 cars. Governor Andrew Cuomo stated,

The state is continuing proactive inspections to protect New Yorkers and prevent crude oil accidents. Our preparedness and response plans must be adequate ahead of time—not after tragedy strikes. We have seen too many crude oil disasters, and with continued comprehensive safety and emergency response reviews and efforts to improve federal policies and regulation, we can help ensure that New York is doing everything possible to prevent mishaps and keep crude oil transport safe.

The Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota is one of the largest oil producing areas in the United States. Recent expansion of oil drilling in this region has led to more crude oil being shipped by railcar than ever before. WIVB of Buffalo, NY reports that crude oil shipments via rail have increased by over 400% since 2005. On average, 40% of the crude oil produced in the Bakken region that is shipped to refineries on the east coast goes through Buffalo, passing through many residential neighborhoods.

A report by the Institute for Energy Research shows that North Dakota’s oil production exceeded that of California and Alaska, and was only second to Texas in March, 2012. In 1995, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the Bakken region only had 151 million barrels of recoverable oil underground, whereas reports in 2008 showed in fact that there was more, an estimated 3.0-4.3 billion barrels.

Image courtesy of the Institute for Energy Research

It’s clear that increased oil production, coupled with the frequent use of the DOT-111 rail cars, allows for greater chance of accidents and environmental disasters. However, is all blame to be put solely on the railcar? Other possibilities like driver fatigue, smaller crews, track maintenance and instability, and criminal acts are other plausible reasons why accidents happen. That said, all efforts should be made to ensure that the railroad’s employees, local citizens, and the safety of railcars themselves are the top priority in limiting future mishaps.

Is Keystone XL a Better Option?

Proponents of Keystone XL and similar pipelines would argue that these derailments and accidents only strengthen their resolve to get the pipeline approved sooner than later. There is an argument that rickety old railcars stand a greater chance of failure than newly built pipelines that are identical to the thousands of miles of pipelines already in the US.

However, opponents of the Keystone XL have valid concerns about its projected track through sensitive environmental areas across the US. Additionally, the promise of lower gas prices, energy independence, and job creation is highly debated amongst the anti-Keystone group.

What This Means

Oil production in areas such as the Bakken region and Alberta, Canada is increasing each year and will likely continue for the foreseeable future. How to safely handle its shipment is of prime concern. Every segment of the energy industry has its NIMBYs, though; people who want cheap energy as long as they don’t need to live near its production. Is it best to continue on with railcar transportation of crude oil and risk accidents within more populated locales? Or funnel the majority of it through pipelines in more rural areas, such as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline? What are your thoughts?

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