The CSX train carrying crude oil that derailed and burned in Lynchburg, Virginia on April 30 was the fifth major oil-train accident in the last ten months. At the same time that the world’s leading climate scientists are warning that we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels reserves in the ground, the shale oil boom has dramatically boosted shipments of crude oil by rail, most of it from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to faraway pipelines and refineries. While 9,500 tank cars of crude were carried by North American railways in 2008, that number jumped to nearly 234,000 in 2012 and an estimated 400,000 in 2013. This increase went relatively unnoticed until July of last year, when a catastrophic accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec killed more than forty people.
Our climate and economy need less fossil fuels
With climate change already impacting people, property, and ecosystems, it should go without saying that we need to rapidly reduce the amount of oil and other fossil fuels that we burn, and invest in speeding up the transition to a clean transportation system and carbon-free energy to power it. Cutting our oil consumption in half over the next 20 years, as a recent UCS report recommends, would save us billions of dollars while reducing the risks of train accidents and other oil spills, gas price spikes, and health threats from air pollution.
Already, CAFE standards and other policies – as well as higher gas prices – have begun to reduce oil demand; oil consumption grew only half as fast as the economy from 1997-2007, and is still 10 percent below its peak while GDP is back just above its 2007 level. This shows that economic growth is increasingly independent from oil use, a trend that should be strongly encouraged. The oil companies, however, appear to be doing everything possible to preserve their status among the world’s most profitable industries, notwithstanding growing climate and safety concerns.
Upgrading unsafe tank cars is overdue
The DOT-111 tank cars that carry crude oil and ethanol have been known to be unsafe and prone to rupture for more than 20 years (DOT-111 is the regulatory designation of a specific unpressurized tank-car design). The weakness of the DOT-111 cars was noted in a 1994 report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) following a 1992 derailment, and reiterated after an ethanol train crashed and burned in 2009.
Following the Lac-Mégantic disaster last year and subsequent accidents in Alabama in November and North Dakota in December, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) within the Department of Transportation Issued a safety alert in January noting that Bakken crude is particularly volatile. Subsequent investigation has discovered that many shipments are incorrectly classified at lower levels of volatility.
The American Association of Railroads (AAR) opposed any requirements to upgrade the DOT-111s for many years, but switched positions in 2011. In the absence of any new regulation, the AAR adopted a voluntary standard that slightly increases the safety of DOT-111 cars manufactured since 2011. However, there are still 78,000 pre-2011 DOT-111 cars in service and it will take many years and perhaps $1 billion to phase them out or upgrade them. And, quite frankly, we have yet to see whether cars built to the new voluntary standard will in fact perform any better in a derailment.
According to press reports, the Department of Transportation has just submitted proposed new safety rules for oil shipments by rail to the White House for review, but the proposed rules were not made public. Exactly what they will do to address the fundamental weaknesses of the DOT-111 tank cars, and how long the current unsafe practices will continue remains to be seen.
To avoid the carbon pollution and other air pollution that is the inevitable product of burning oil, we need to accelerate our transition to electric vehicles and more efficient cars and trucks, the development of low carbon non-food based biofuels, and the replacement of dirty coal and other fossil fuels with renewable electricity generation. In the meantime, we need to make sure that the oil we continue to use is produced, transported, and consumed as safely as possible.
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