Monday, July 15, 2013

Blast on Quebec-Maine-N.B. rail line raises worries about much greater rail transport of crude oil

Nearly 234,000 carloads of crude oil were moved by railroad through North America last year, up from 66,000 in 2011 and only 9,500 in 2008. The number is expected to rise again this year, as U.S. and Canadian oil production continues to increase and the debate continues over whether or not President Obama should approve the 875-mile northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline that would go through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

New concerns about rail transportation have been raised after the July 6 Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, about 10 miles west of Maine, which is believed to have killed about 50 47 people. The number remains uncertain, more than a week after the blast. The train would have gone through Maine on its way to the Atlantic port of Saint John, New Brunswick. (Bloomberg photo: Search teams dig through the rubble in Lac-Megantic, Quebec)

Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Holly Arthur told USA Today, "We have a strong safety record of moving hazardous materials, including crude oil," adding that the Quebec disaster involved a short line — not a major or Class 1 railroad, Wendy Koch reports. Yet, federal data show rail travel has higher rates of serious incidents, injuries and fatalities than pipelines, with 2.08 incidents per billion ton-miles (a ton of weight moved 1 mile), compared with 0.58 for oil pipelines, Diana Furchtgott-Roth reports for The Globe and Mail in Toronto.

Rail transport of crude oil in North America is increasing 17 times faster than oil production because existing pipelines can't handle the production spike, Rebecca Penty and Mike Lee report for Bloomberg. This is especially true in communities new to oil development, "including North Dakota and Utah, which are seeing rising rail shipments of crude due to a scarcity of pipelines" and "trains are passing through more populated areas as the footprint of crude-by-rail expands."

Patti Reilly, a spokesperson for the railroad association, said hazardous materials make up only 1 percent of all rail shipments, Bloomberg reports. Reilly also said the U.S. rail industry and transportation regulators use a computer model to develop routes for oil shipments, considering factors including population density and the ability for communities to respond to accidents.
"The International Energy Agency said recently that although there is more risk of an oil spill from a train than from a pipeline, the total amount spilled from pipelines in the United States is three times greater," The Economist reports.

Whether or not the Keystone pipeline is approved, "There's so much oil being extracted, it won't reduce the hundreds of tank cars rolling through towns like Glasgow, Mont., (population 3,300) every day," CBS News reports. Bruce Petersen, a commissioner of surrounding Valley County, said "Someday this Keystone, I'm sure, is going to spring a leak some place, but anything that's man-made has never been perfect, and people who want a perfect system (are) on the wrong planet, I think."

UPDATE: The disaster hasn't kept Lac-Mégantic’s local weekly newspaper, L’Echo de Frontenac, from publishing, reports Jacques Gallant of The Toronto Star. The paper's website, which is in French, is here. Outside journalists were given a tour of the blast area Tuesday; "the experience was overwhelming," Christopher Curtis of The Gazette in Montréal reports.

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