Skip to comments.Rail disaster underscores risks in oil transportation
Posted on 07/09/2013 8:39:01 AM PDT by thackney
A deadly crude oil train disaster in Canada has brought renewed scrutiny to the growing use of rail to carry oil including hundreds of thousands of barrels in Texas and prompted worries that the higher volume will mean more accidents.
Though rail proponents say moving crude by train is safe, federal regulators and others say that pipelines are safer, a stance that has played a role in the debate over the planned Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Texas coast.
And regardless of the relative safety of the two transportation modes, the mere fact that more crude trains are on the rails increases the possibility of accidents like the one Saturday in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
At least 13 people died and dozens were injured as a portion of the town was flattened by exploding carloads of oil when a train derailed there.
The train was moving oil east from the Bakken shale play in North Dakota to a refinery in Canada, the Associated Press reported.
Parties to the political debate over transport were muted in their response to Saturdays tragedy. The oil industry lobbying group American Petroleum Institute declined to comment and a representative from the Natural Resources Defense Council did not respond to phone calls.
Rail car loads soar
The Sierra Club environmental group expressed wishes for the safety of residents and responders in Lac-Mégantic, and said the accident strengthens our resolve to move beyond fossil fuels so communities in Canada, the U.S. and around the world are no longer threatened by industrial disaster, toxic pollution and climate disruption.
Energy companies are moving more oil by rail because trains can serve markets that dont have pipelines, said Jackie Forrest, senior director of North American oil market research for IHS.
And as railways have taken on more oil business, they are trying to make their offerings cheaper and more appealing to energy companies.
While 90 percent of crude oil typically has been transported by pipeline in the United States, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported earlier this year that railcar loadings of crude oil and other petroleum products jumped 46.3 percent in 2012, as pipelines couldnt keep pace with surging production.
Within Texas, trains and barges carried 401,700 barrels of crude and petroleum liquids daily last year, up from 362,732 barrels per day in 2011, according to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the states oil and gas industry. Spokeswoman Ramona Nye said the commission estimates as much as 95 percent of that is rail transportation.
Shipments head east
Though pipeline companies have expanded their networks, rail retains an advantage it isnt likely to lose soon in some regions, including the Bakken area, Forrest said.
Because there are no solid plans for pipelines to transport oil east from the Bakken, she said, refineries have turned to rail and other options for supplying their raw material.
Houston-based Phillips 66 already is moving oil by rail from the Bakken to its Bayway refinery in New Jersey and Valero is exploring a rail option for moving large quantities of Bakken crude east to its Quebec refinery.
With a rapidly changing energy landscape, the nations infrastructure will need to catch up to improve safety, said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute.
She said in a report last month that an analysis of U.S. Transportation Department data found fewer than one incident involving pipelines per billion ton-miles, compared with 19.95 incidents per billion ton-miles for trains.
Pipeline is vastly more safe, she said. Pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents and personal injuries than road and rail.
But pipelines spill more oil in absolute numbers because of the nations vast pipeline network.
An average of 6.6 million gallons of petroleum products were released accidentally from pipelines each year from 2005 to 2009, according to Furchtgott-Roths analysis.
During the same period road transportation spilled an average 477,600 gallons a year and trains spilled 83,800 gallons.
Although the number of incidents, the injuries and fatalities are lower for pipeline, when there is an incident, the amount spilled is larger, Furchtgott-Roth said in an interview.
It's not safe to stay in bed in the morning, nor to get out of bed. There is only statistically safer.
The DOT-111 is a staple of the American freight rail fleet. But its flaws have been noted as far back as a 1991 safety study. Among other things, its steel shell is too thin to resist puncturing in accidents, which almost guarantees the car will tear open in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that could catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment.
“It’s too early to tell. There’s a lot of factors involved,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of energy here. The train came down on a fairly significant grade for 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) before it came into the town and did all the destruction it did.” He said the train was moving at 63 mph (101 kph) when it derailed.
Focus on Earlier Blaze in Quebec Train Derailment
Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert said that when the same train caught fire hours prior to the accident, the engine was shut off per the standard operating procedure dictated by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.
The blaze was extinguished within about 45 minutes. And that’s where the fire department’s involvement ended, Lambert said.
“The people from MMA told us, ‘That’s great the train is secure, there’s no more fire, there’s nothing anymore, there’s no more danger,’” Lambert told reporters. “We were given our leave, and we left.”
Edward Burkhardt, the president and CEO of the railway’s parent company Rail World, Inc., suggested that the decision to shut off the locomotive to put out the fire might have disabled the brakes. “An hour or so after the locomotive was shut down, the train rolled away,” Burkhardt told the Canadian Broadcast Corp.
Meanwhile, crews were working to contain 100,000 liters (27,000 gallons) of light crude that spilled from the tankers and made its way into nearby waterways. There were fears it could flow into the St. Lawrence River all the way to Quebec City.
I would expect trains to be like trucks. When the air is cut off, the breaks would lock.
Railway airbrake according to wiki.
The lack of air pressure causes the brakes to lock.
At first they do. But they are held close by individual tanks on each car, that eventually will bleed down. They are intended to give time to apply the hand brakes; they are not a permanent brake.
On a truck, as the air bleeds off a spring brake locks down.
This is going to be a very interesting case, with lots of far reaching repercussions, considering it was US oil, owned by a Canadian refiner, being carried by a US RR, with a terrible safety record.
I thought that the US was not permitted to export crude? I also thought that crude was not explosive. Do they do something to the crude when it is transported by ship to make it less explosive? I don’t understand how any of this happened.
re: “federal regulators and others say that pipelines are safer”
Oh, yeah, let’s see - WHO is the ONE who has done everything possible to stop, to delay the pipeline to Canada??
Note the “reporter” is more concerned about spilled gallons than lives lost.
Just more liberal paranoia. Drill here, Drill now, save the planet and the USA.
Crude oil export is quite limited and nearly all of it falls under NAFTA.
Crude oil exports are restricted to: (1) crude oil derived from fields under the State waters of Alaska’s Cook Inlet; (2) Alaskan North Slope crude oil; (3) certain domestically produced crude oil destined for Canada; (4) shipments to U.S. territories; and (5) California crude oil to Pacific Rim countries. Totals may not equal sum of components due to independent rounding.
This was not an explosion, it was a fire. There may have been individual tanks that ruptured “explosively” due to build up of pressure without an initial rupture while setting in a pool fire from other tanks.
One advantage that rails have over pipelines is government subsidies. The government pays for most of the rail improvements and the local towns are responsible to pay for any mitigation such as over passes, under passes. In some cases, the government even pays for the additional land purchases for new sidings, etc, as well as all the environmental studies for new rails.
Trains are different.
The air pressure that holds the brake open also supplies are to pressure up individual tanks on each car to initially hold the brake closed. It is intended to give enough time to allow the hand brakes to be set on each individual car. It is not designed to stay held closed forever.
Any idea of what constitutes an "incident"? In order to qualify as an "incident", would a spill have to be a tea cup...a pint...a gallon....10 gallons......?
The lead Transportation Safety Board investigator says the rail tankers involved in a derailment and explosions that wiped out the heart of a small town in Quebec have a history of puncturing during accidents.
Train transport still cost more in most cases to the oil company.
The lack of pipeline capacity out of Cushing was driving a large differential in oil prices, central versus coastal.
Oil companies were getting enough extra dollars for the oil on the east coast to justify extra rail cost to get there.
Now with some recent pipeline capacity additions, the differential has fallen from about $20 down to $5.
More info available in the link at post #3.
Ya....haven’t you seen all of the coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN??!?!!?!
I assume that was crude oil on the train. How does crude oil “explode?”
I believe there individual tanks that ruptured explosively due to build up of pressure without an initial rupture while setting in a pool fire from other tanks.
The story linked below is the best timeline of events I have found.
There have been reports that the accident is the result of tampering. If so, I wouldn’t be surprised if an environmental group did this just to stop the only way we have of getting Canadian oil moved without the Keystone pipeline.