In the past few years, in the area between the States of Colorado, North and South Dakota and Wyoming, there was a peak of extraction and production of oil and gas. The lack of pipelines and energy infrastructures led to an increase of rail use to transport crude oil to the refineries, from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 this year. Today 10% of total crude oil production is shipped by rail.
But a series of accidents (like Quebec, North Dakota or Alabama, where 47 people died) which killed dozens of people led to many questions about the regulation on these shipments. Here’s now an interesting data: the quantity of oil spilled in these accidents in the past year is bigger than the one spilled from 1975 to 2012. The rapidly growth of oil sector in this part of the country should have brought to the construction of more pipelines but it’s a way that takes time so the decision was to converge on railways.
Before the explanation of the recent events we have to ask ourselves: what are the main causes of this increase of rail which brought to these terrible accidents? One of the causes is the lack of pipelines but it isn’t the only one. There’s also a lack of controls on the security standards of the sector. Unfortunately we’ve seen before that the absence of controls can bring to several damages. Safety officials have warned that cars which transport oil were unsuited to carry flammable cargo. As always money role is primary and in this case also vital for the people who were involved in the accident and this is unacceptable. These accidents should have changed the situation and a political and economic debate opened.
On the other side of this story we can find Keystone XL, a pipeline system to transport crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. From one side Keystone is the alternative to rail in oil transport sector and from another Keystone is a dangerous project from the environment point and useless from the economic point. President Obama wasn’t convinced by the project but now, after these rail accidents, his opinion might change. Still, pipelines aren’t safe for the environment: just a few months ago, an Exxon pipeline leaked 840,000 gallons of crude into a residential area in Arkansas. Pipelines spilled more often than rail but the number of victims is higher regarding rail.
Environmentalists are opposing to both: rail are the perfect example of how oil transport is dangerous for people and for the environment but Keystone has been criticized for its environmental impact. None of the two projects are a good idea but the best thing should be an improvement of sector standards and better controls of rail which involve a cost but it’s nothing compared to those people who died because of the lack of controls. I hope that soon people’s life and safety will be more important than convenience and money. It's time for this aggresive market to find safer ways to transport oil.
References: NY Times, BusinessWeek.
Photo: Cars on an oil train in Casselton.
Photo from NY Times.