Burnt train cars are seen after a train derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec July 8, 2013. (Reuters/Transportation Safety Board of Canada)
A debate about the relative merits of transporting crude oil by pipeline or by rail reignited over the weekend, after a runaway freight train carrying seventy-two cars of oil exploded and leveled Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
The disaster exposed a significant lack of regulation governing the shipment of crude oil via rail, and raised questions about the continued use of old tanker cars known to be unsafe.
The volume of crude carried via trains has grown exponentially in recent years, as the amount of oil flowing from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the oil sands in western Canada outstripped existing pipeline capacity. With new pipelines like Keystone XL caught up in the permitting process, freight rail infrastructure expanded to accommodate the glut of new oil with little oversight.
“A couple of years ago there was hardly any crude being railed around,” said Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International. “The increase in crude by rail has come up very quickly and certainly there have been no new regulations since the boom.”
The volume of crude transported by train in North America jumped by about 250,000 barrels per day last year. BNSF Railway, which controls many of the rails in the northern US from Chicago westward, increased its haul of crude from the Bakken by nearly 7,000 percent between 2008 and 2012. Manufacturers are churning out tank cars, oil companies are building loading facilities, and refineries and ports, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, are upgrading to accommodate the surge in rail shipments.
In Washington State, crude-carrying locomotors arrived in the fall of 2012, after refineries in Anacortes and Takoma built new rail yards. While the state has a regulatory and safety framework for the millions of barrels of liquid petroleum shipped via tanker or pipeline to ports on the coast, the system is not designed to prevent or handle oil spills around railways further inland, according to Curt Hart, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of Ecology.
“We have very limited regulatory authority over rail, and this is true for all of the states. We can’t tell railroads where they can take freight, [and] we can’t tell railroads what they can bring in as freight,” Hart said.
With three other refineries and a handful of oil-handling facilities working to complete their own rail yards in Washington, Hart expects train shipments to rise. He noted that while rail has a “pretty good” safety record overall, the sheer increase in traffic presents challenges that the state does not have the authority to oversee. Because the railways are governed exclusively at the federal level, Hart said, “We’re pre-empted…and that does concern us.”