Today we have an update from previous posts on railway safety issues associated with oil transport, and have a look at new information on trends in this area.
On June 18 the web site Politico provided an analysis of federal data from more than 400 oil-train incidents since 1971. The data shows a substantial increase in the danger from railway incidents over the last five years.
Key findings from the report:
- The property damage from oil-train accidents in 2014 is three times as high (as of May 14) as it was in all of 2013. We are also on pace to have more accidents this year than in 2013 — 70 accidents as of May 14 this year vs. 118 all of last year.
- The train accidents have been spread all over the country. Politico reports that these “episodes are spreading as more refineries take crude from production hot spots like North Dakota’s Bakken region and western Canada, while companies from California and Washington state to Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida build or expand terminals for moving oil from trains to barges, trucks or pipelines.”
- The voluntary reforms implemented by the Department of Transportation and the railway industry have not made much of a difference, and what’s more, it’s likely they wouldn’t have prevented the worst accidents. Politico provides the example of the 40 mph speed limit on oil trains moving through densely populated areas. Only one accident in the last five years involved a speed higher than that.
- The West has been spared the vast majority of the accidents. As you can see from the map below, there has been only one accident n Montana over the last five years, one in Wyoming, and only a handful of others west of North Dakota and the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. Most have happened along major rail routes from the Bakken and Eagle Ford in the upper midwest and the South.
It’s become a common theme in topics we’ve discussed on this blog that the oil boom has overwhelmed federal and state regulators. Oil production fueled by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has grown so fast over the last five years that there’s no way for regulators to catch up. We’ve seen this with well inspections, with research on damages caused by drilling, with air pollution impacts, and in many other areas.
And it’s not just the ability of regulators to keep up with the pace of growth, it’s the political clout of the oil and gas industry, that works overtime making sure that the federal government stays as far away from meaningful legislation and regulation of oil and gas as possible.
To date, we’ve been spared train accidents in Montana because we’re not on a major transport route of Bakken oil. But that can change if oil and gas drilling expands into the State, first from drilling along the Beartooth Front and then west toward Bozeman and east toward Yellowstone County. As we transport more oil, we will have more accidents. Count on it.
There are those who use railway accidents as a reason to argue for the Keystone XL. This is not really a reason to argue for the XL one way or another. The XL is a north-south pipeline, and it would likely reduce train accidents along the north-south axis of the map. But the XL does not run east-west, and it just takes a glance at the map above to recognize that as oil production increases, train accidents along the east-west axis of the map will continue to be a major problem. In Montana west of the Bakken, building the XL would mean rail transport heading east, and more accidents.
The key issue from a local point of view is that increased production without adequate regulation or inspection puts our land, water and way of life at risk. The railway transport issue should be something we need to look at very carefully as we decide as a community the conditions under which we are willing to allow drilling to occur.
Let’s not forget that Article II, Section 3 of the Montana State Constitution declares that all citizens have certain inalienable rights, including
“the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life’s basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in lawful ways.”
This derailment of a train from the Bakken to Lac-Megantic, Ontario in July, 2013 spilled 1.15 million gallons of oil and caused death and destruction in the town.
The horrific derailment in Casselton, North Dakota in late 2013: