How should we transport oil, by pipeline or rail?

The Obama administration on Friday issued new rules intended to make oil-by-rail safer. But environmental groups rejected the reforms, saying a methodical program to remove aging train cars from service all but guarantees further catastrophic accidents.

The Department of Transportation’s new rules would phase out the DOT-111 rail cars, still in use since the 1960s, by 2018. Newer CPC-1232 cars, which still aren’t perfect, would have to be replaced by 2020 with a new-and-improved DOT-117 model.

According to The New York Times:

All cars built under the DOT-117 standard after Oct. 1, 2015, will have a thicker nine-sixteenths-inch tank shell, a one-half-inch shield running the full height of the front and back of a tank car, thermal protection and improved pressure-relief valves and bottom outlet valves.

Last month DOT issued new standards designed to reduce speeds traveled by oil trains in residential areas.

A coalition of activist groups, including the Sierra Club and the NRDC, said Friday’s announcement didn’t go nearly far enough. Earthjustice released a statement saying:

The groups continue to call for an immediate ban on these cars, citing the federal agencies’ own projections that 15 derailments on mainlines are likely every year. DOT’s phase-out period allows the crude oil fleet to more than double before these tank cars are taken out of service, knowingly exposing communities daily to unacceptable risks.

As NRDC notes, the increase in U.S. oil production — mostly in shale-rock formations in Texas and North Dakota — has caused the oil industry to step up transport of its product by rail. In 2009, U.S. crude “filled a mere 8,000 rail tanker cars,” NRDC notes. In 2013, it filled 400,000.

A series of fiery accidents have spurred calls for increased safety: In July 2013, an oil train went out of control, crashed and exploded in the Quebec city of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Earlier this year oil trains derailed in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario.

It’s no coincidence that, when a train full of less volatile ethanol fuel derailed in North Dakota in February, the damage was much less severe.

The accidents have put the spotlight on how U.S. and Canadian-produced oil is transported around North America. Environmentalists also are strongly opposed to extending the Keystone XL pipeline through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico, and so far that project has been shelved as the State Department considers whether to approve it. President Obama has indicated his disapproval. But the debate hasn’t made Americans much more informed about it. The University of Texas at Austin conducted a poll and found that only 42 percent of adults were even aware of the project.

What do you think is the safest, most efficient way to move oil around?