BOOM: North America’s Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem

Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones, BOOM: North America’s Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem. InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel, in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, 8 December 2014. “U.S. regulators knew they had to act fast. A train hauling 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota had exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Now they had to assure Americans a similar disaster wouldn’t happen south of the border, where the U.S. oil boom is sending highly volatile crude oil every day over aging, often defective rails in vulnerable railcars.

On the surface, the response from Washington following the July 6, 2013 explosion seemed promising. Over the next several months, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued two emergency orders, two safety alerts and a safety advisory. It began drafting sweeping new oil train regulations to safeguard the sudden surge of oil being shipped on U.S. rails. The railroad industry heeded the call, too, agreeing to slow down trains, increase safety inspections and reroute oil trains away from populous areas.

But almost a year and a half later—and after three railcar explosions in the United States—those headline-grabbing measures have turned out to be less than they appeared.

Idling oil trains are still left unattended in highly populated areas. The effort to draft new safety regulations has been bogged down in disputes between the railroads and the oil industry over who will bear the brunt of the costs. The oil industry is balking at some of the tanker upgrades, and the railroads are lobbying against further speed restrictions.

And rerouting trains away from big cities and small towns? That, too, has been of limited value, because refineries, ports and other offloading facilities tend to be in big cities.

InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel, and The Investigative Fund have monitored the regulatory response to oil train explosions this year, focusing on whether the agency that oversees the railroads—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)—is able to ensure that the nation’s aging railroad infrastructure can safely handle its latest task: serving as a massive, rickety network of pipelines on wheels.

We found that regulators don’t have the resources to catch up with—let alone get ahead of—the risks posed by exploding oil trains. That has left the FRA politically outgunned by the railroad industry, leaving it largely to police itself….

Railcar shipments of oil soared from 9,500 in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2013– most of it crude from North Dakota. Railroad revenue from transporting crude during that period rose from $25.8 million to $2.15 billion.

This bit of industrial alchemy helped keep oil prices from rising during the ongoing turbulence in the Middle East and created billions of dollars in investments in rail loading and unloading facilities, bringing more jobs to parts of America beyond North Dakota.

But then the oil trains from North Dakota started exploding. First in Lac-Megantic, Canada. Then in Aliceville, Ala.; Casselton, N.D.; New Brunswick, Canada, and Lynchburg,Va….

Government officials and industry trade groups are still sparring over why North Dakota’s crude is much more volatile than traditional heavier crude oil, but many outside experts say the answer is clear: The Bakken’s light crude is more like gasoline and rich in volatile natural gas liquids, including methane, ethane, propane and butane….

The type of railcar typically used to carry North Dakota’s oil—the DOT-111—was never intended to haul volatile crude oil. Designed in the 1960s, the cars originally carried corn syrup and other less explosive cargo.

Since 1991, the NTSB has warned repeatedly that the cars are prone to rupture during a derailment. Still, the ethanol industry used the DOT-111 as a workhorse in the mid-2000s, when the United States became the world’s largest ethanol producer….

Because the Lac-Megantic accident occurred in Canada, it isn’t included in the railroad association’s safety statistics. But the accident was very much a “Made in America” event. The railroad was based in Hermon, Maine. The oil came from North Dakota, where it was loaded onto American-made railcars and sent on its way to Canada on U.S.-owned track. Because the disaster occurred about 10 miles from Maine, U.S. firefighters rushed to the scene to help fight the fires….

In its final report on the disaster, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada outlined a long list of contributing factors, including a poor safety culture at the railroad, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic.

But Wendy Tadros, who oversaw the investigation as the head of the safety board at the time, identified a deeper underlying issue: the failure of railroad regulators to keep up with the rapidly evolving safety challenges posed by North America’s energy boom.

“Who was the guardian of public safety?” she lamented during a press conference releasing the report. “That is the role of the government…and yet this booming industry, where trains were shipping more and more oil across Canada and across the border, ran largely unchecked.”