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?




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.