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?




Big difference between crude, ethanol train crashes

Something amazing happened in the aftermath of the ethanol train derailment in Iowa.

No fish died.

At least none that we know of. Environmental officials in the state probably feared the worst after eight cars spilled ethanol following the Feb. 4 derailment north of Dubuque.

The Associated Press quoted state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins this week:

Efforts to monitor water quality and aquatic life in the river are ongoing, Baskins said, but past results shows that the majority of ethanol in the water dissipated downstream, and no fish kills have been reported.

Not long after the crash, Fuel Freedom published a blog post outlining the differences between how ethanol and crude oil behave during an accident, although both are flammable. Relying on research at the Renewable Fuels Association, we noted that ethanol — even the denatured, toxic variety in the train cars that derailed — is water-soluble.

Sure enough, AP reported Feb. 10:

Results from several monitoring stations along the Mississippi River show much of the ethanol that leaked into the water after several train cars derailed has dissolved, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said Monday. … Baskins said the ethanol dissipated fairly quickly in the first mile downstream, with fuel levels virtually undetectable 10 miles from the site.

It’s a stark contrast to the growing number of horrific accidents involving trains carrying oil. A runaway train in Quebec crashed in 2013, with the resulting inferno killing 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic. There have been numerous incidents since then, and two of them right around the Iowa ethanol-train derailment shows how spectacularly different the fuels behave when there’s leakage and a fire.

Joan Lowy, an AP reporter in Washington, D.C., wrote a story this week about the efforts to improve the safety on railroads and in the tank cars that transport oil:

On Feb. 5, the Transportation Department sent the White House draft rules that would require oil trains to use stronger tank cars and make other safety improvements.

Nine days later a 100-car train hauling crude oil and petroleum distillates derailed and caught fire in a remote part of Ontario, Canada. Less than 48 hours later, a 109-car oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia, leaking oil into a Kanawha River tributary and burning a house to its foundation. As the fire spread across 19 of the cars, a nearby resident said the explosions sounded like an “atomic bomb.” Both fires burned for nearly a week.

Much of the attention lately has been focused on the aging DOT-111 tanker cars that have been in use since the 1960s. But the Ontario and West Virginia accidents involved newer tank cars known as 1232s. Both trains also were traveling under 40 mph, Lowy reported. “Those folks who were arguing that the 1232s may in fact be puncture-proof really can’t make that argument anymore,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota.

Railroads contend that implementing new safety measures, such as thicker tank walls and installing electronic brakes that slow trains quickly rather than in succession, would cost them billions of dollars and slow down an already crowded schedule, owing to the increased use of oil by rail.

Lowy cited a Department of Transportation analysis, which predicts:

… that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.

Based on recent history, and simple science, safety officials might be looking more closely at the risks of one particular fuel over others.

(Photo: Disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013. Credit: TSB Canada)

Officials work to clean up ethanol spill in Iowa

UPDATED 2:21 p.m. PST Friday. Officials say it’s unclear how much ethanol has spilled into the Mississippi River following a train derailment about 10 miles north of Dubuque, Iowa. The 81-car train derailed on Wednesday morning, and 15 cars left the tracks in a remote, wooded area inaccessible by road. Crews had to build a temporary road to reach the site. Eight of the 14 cars that were carrying ethanol appeared to be leaking, and crews were working to minimize the impact on the river, and to wildlife, Canadian Pacific said. Fox Business reports:

“We have verified some ethanol has reached the water but we do not have an estimate of how much,” said CP spokesman Andy Cummings, who was at the scene Thursday. Ethanol mixes with water and, in high concentrations, can deplete the oxygen in water and kill fish, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins. He noted the impacted segment of the river was within the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Baskins said the primary concern is the threat to fish and other aquatic life, such as mussels, which can’t easily move away when oxygen levels dip. The DNR plans to sample fish collected from fishermen and monitor open-water areas in the largely iced-over river for signs of dead fish.

Ethanol is an alcohol fuel made primarily from corn, but it can also be processed from any other plant high in sugar content. It’s fermented in a distillery, and in the past it was commonly known as “moonshine.” The ethanol being transported was denatured, meaning it contained toxic additives to discourage human consumption. Such spills involving crude oil have tended to have more environmental impact. The Renewable Fuels Association points out in a report on the dangers and cleanup protocols for ethanol spills:

Ethanol is less toxic than gasoline. Carcinogenic compounds are not present in ethanol. … The biggest difference between ethanol and hydrocarbon fuels is the water solubility. This property changes how ethanol will react in the environment, including surface and ground water, and soils. The complete solubility of ethanol in water means that if a release reaches surface water, the ethanol will rapidly disperse and can no longer be recovered as a product. … Ethanol in surface water will rapidly biodegrade. The concentration of ethanol can create a toxic effect on aquatic organisms, though frequently the depletion of dissolved oxygen caused by biodegradation has a greater impact to fish and aquatic organisms.

As production of U.S. oil skyrocketed the past few years, much of it from large shale-rock formations in North Dakota and Texas, more oil needed to be transported through America’s rail system. There has been a series of derailments and fires, most notably the inferno in Quebec that killed 47 people 2013. Much of the spotlight has shone on the aging DOT-111 fuel-tanker rail car that’s been in use for decades. That was the model of car used on the Iowa train that derailed. Reuters reported:

The incident is likely to add to a debate about transporting flammable goods by train after a series of fiery accidents involving crude oil cargoes in recent years. The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed new safety features for new tank cars transporting fuel and called for the phasing out of older cars considered unsafe. The U.S. ethanol industry has pushed back on the new rules, saying regulators should distinguish between corn-based biofuel and crude oil. Ethanol is less volatile than crude oil, is biodegradable and has a 99.997 percent rail safety record, according to the national Renewable Fuels Association.


WSJ: Rail companies often keep routes a secret from local officials

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating story about the “virtual pipelines” that hide in plain sight around the country: trains, sometimes up to a mile long, that carry oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota to refineries.

Unlike oil pipelines, like the hotly contested Keystone XL that a Canadian company wants to build from western Canada to Nebraska, no new government hearings or environmental reviews are needed to move oil around the country.

Neither, it seems, is much notice required for local cities and emergency-services agencies. Often, the story states, key information — and even the existence of routes — is withheld by rail companies.

From the WSJ:

Finding the locations of oil-filled trains remains difficult, even in states that don’t consider the information top secret. There are no federal or state rules requiring public notice despite several fiery accidents involving oil trains, including one in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.

The desire for secrecy seems wrongheaded to some experts. “If you don’t share this information, how are people supposed to know what they are supposed to do when another Lac-Mégantic happens?” asked Denise Krepp, a consultant and former senior counsel to the congressional Homeland Security Committee.

She said more firefighting equipment and training was needed urgently. “We are not prepared,” she said.

Is Bakken crude more volatile than other kinds of oil?

The Wall Street Journal takes note of an issue that’s growing in importance: Whether crude from the Bakken oil-shale formation is more volatile, and explosive, than other kinds of crude oil that comes out of the ground.

The geological makeup of the oil is crucial to regulators who are in the process of deciding whether to impose additional restrictions on companies that transport Bakken crude by railways.

The WSJ story begins:

Regulators set to decide on crude-by-rail shipping rules are relying on testing methods that may understate the explosive risk of the crude, according to a growing chorus of industry and Canadian officials.

The tests’ accuracy is central to addressing the safety of growing crude-by-rail shipments across the continent: whether Bakken crude contains potentially dangerous levels of dissolved gases. Several trains carrying Bakken crude have exploded after derailing, including a fiery accident last year that killed 47 people in a small town in Quebec.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is expected to decide Thursday whether to impose new rules on transporting oil on railroads. A study by the state’s Petroleum Council concluded that Bakken crude was no more volatile than other light crudes found in Texas and other fields. But the testing that went into that report might have allowed flammable gases, called light ends, to escape before the samples were collected and processed.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also has proposed new safety rules for oil by rail, including phasing out the aging tanker cars (called DOT 111) used to transport the oil within two years.

Exec: North American rail network could be headed for gridlock

Calgary-based Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., has dropped merger talks with CSX Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla., and remarks this week by the always-blunt Canadian Pacific CEO E. Hunter Harrison are very telling about the future of oil traveling by rail.

The volume of oil, including that produced in the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and southern Canada, is soaring, and yet many communities are concerned about the increased rail traffic to carry the oil to refineries. In 2013 a derailment and resulting inferno in Quebec killed 47 people, and since then the issue has been on the minds of activists, local politicians and the U.S. government, which is considering stronger tank-car hulls and other safety improvements.

Harrison said mergers are needed to prevent gridlock in the North American rail system.

“There’s a desire to put more tonnage on the rail,” Harrison said during a conference call Tuesday, according to Toronto’s Globe and Mail. At the same time, governments are saying that we want to slow you down because of [hazardous materials] and crude. There’s no more infrastructure [being built]. No one wants the railroad to run through their backyard, or their city.”

E&E Publishing’s Blake Sobczak has much more from Harrison on that subject. Here are quotes from Harrison in a story Wednesday on E&E’s Energy Wire page (subscription required):

“We even have issues on our network now where there’s city councils and groups of citizens banded together who say, ‘We don’t want you to run trains at night.’ … In my view, at least, we are quickly approaching a time where none of this works.”

In New York state, a coalition of environmental groups led by Earthjustice filed a petition with the state urging a ban on allowing older DOT-111 tank cars going through the Port of Albany. Charlene Benton, president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association, said in an Earthjustice statement that many families live “within a few feet of these bomb trains. Our families deserve to live free of the daily fear that one of these trains will blow up in our backyard. The time to act is now, before it is too late.”