A seemingly endless oil train of tankers passes by on tracks

Can the US make oil trains safer or is that missing the point?

Just a few weeks ago, the public learned that Warren Buffett’s BNSF Railway had states sign confidentiality agreements “or otherwise pledged not to release [specific] information” about the millions of gallons of volatile crude oil rolling by rail through US countrysides, communities and cities.  Immediately, in some affected places, people began organizing protests (here, here and here) against these shipments of crude oil with visions of the Lac-Megantic conflagration still fresh in memory.

Just as public concern about the safety of oil by train is escalating,  the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and an advanced version of the same regarding improved standards for shipping highly-flammable oil by rail. Included in the proposed new standards are “a classification and testing program for mined gases and liquids and new operational requirements for high-hazard flammable trains” (emphasis added). More specifically, the DOT wants the DOT-111 tank cars currently in use to be phased out or retrofitted “to comply with new tank car design standards.” The specific kind of replacement tank car will be announced in the future. These proposed regulations cover transport by rail of “most Bakken crude oil,” which primarily comes from ND and MT and is transported from there to US refineries and ports.

Today’s US railroads typically haul about 1 million barrels of oil a day, most of it Bakken crude, a “light, sweet, and superflammable [oil] with high levels of propane and methane,” which can result in fireballs and heat so intense first responders are hard-pressed to put out the fires resulting from derailments and explosions. Only recently have the railroads been put under emergency DOT orders to “tell state emergency responders . . . how much crude [they’re] hauling and the exact route.” The DOT has also issued a “safety advisory” urging that “best tank cars” be employed.

Many rail cars used to transport highly volatile oil are of the old DOT-111 variety. They have easily punctured thin skins, and are already outlawed in Canada. The Association of American Railroads “has called for hardening or updating 85 percent of the railroad cars now moving oil in the United States.” That’s around 78,000 cars, folks, it “could take” 10 years to accomplish, and there’s even the suggestion that the railroads be offered tax breaks for achieving this measure of public safety.

A new, safer tank car costs “as much as $150,000” while retrofitting the older ones costs $20,000 – $60,000 each.  (Even at the lower end of the estimate, $20,000 times 78,000 cars is quite a chunk of change.) Canada has already established a deadline of May 2017 for phasing out or retrofitting the old DOT-111s. The industry estimates there’s  “a 50,400 tank car backlog of factory orders . . . that will not be completed until the end of 2015.”

Oil by pipeline has been looking more attractive to the oil industry, though resistance to the pipelines is considerable, and growing, including among North American Indigenous communities. If the struggle to ram the pipelines through becomes too tough, will oil by train become the preferred mode of transporting the stuff, even at the price of upgrading or replacing the old DOT-111s? After considering the situation, one source actually wondered if trucks couldn’t be pressed into service.

Meanwhile, there is an entirely different movement that’s gathering steam and might have the greatest chance of ridding us of our highly-destructive oil habit: Divestiture. Earlier this month, the World Council of Churches announced “it would pull all of its investments in fossil fuels” since they “were no longer ethical.” Although non-binding on its member churches, this move by the World Council of Churches is expected to have significant impact. The Church of England has said it is considering “redirecting its investments” as the world faces the devastating prospect of global warming, and the Roman Catholic Pope Francis has also expressed his concern. Just recently, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam and many others in a two-day conference in Fort McMurray, Canada where he called Alberta’s Athabascan oilsands “‘filth’ created by greed,” urged boycotting of fossil fuels and added his strong voice to the divestment movement.

Stay tuned.

Photo of oil train passing though Trempealeau, WI from the Bakken oil fields by Roy Luck, released under a Creative Commons license.