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Oil by rail

Plans to double, even triple, tar sands oil production has spawned more than a dozen proposals to build more pipelines that threaten waterways, forests and communities. But Big Oil is also pushing to expand the use of railways to transport its bitumen crude, a strategy that is just as dangerous as pipelines.

Like pipelines, which leak and spill on a regular basis, railroads come with unacceptable risks. Just ask the residents of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, 130 miles east of Montreal. On the night of July 6, 2013, a train with 72 tank cars carrying crude oil derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic. Explosions went on for hours, leveling half the town of 6,000 people, destroying 30 buildings, and killing 47 people.

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Oil companies turning to railroads to transport tar sands crude
Key Problems:
- Oil spills and leaks as a result of derailment and other accidents
- Rail cars are unsafe, and explosions can and do occur
- Unlocks massive growth of tar sands, causing climate catastrophe  
Current Status:
More than 35 new oil-by-rail proposals to transport tar sands crude

Like pipeline ruptures and tanker spills, train accidents happen. It’s not a question of “if” but “when” trains derail, releasing their toxic contents into the surrounding environment.

Crude oil traveling by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013. More crude oil was spilled from trains in 2013 than in the last 40 years combined. Seven of the worst 10 railroad oil spills of the past decade – which cost nearly $2 million to clean up – happened in the last three years alone.

There are more than 35 new crude-by-rail proposals in the U.S. alone. If built, they would combine to transport over 2.5 million barrels of oil per day – three times the amount of oil as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. This would increase the number and severity of rail spills significantly.

It’s common knowledge that rail cars carrying tar sands oil are unsafe—the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been saying as much since 1991. The tank cars usually used to move the oil, called DOT-111 cars, are prone to puncturing and exploding even during derailments as slow as 36 miles per hour (58kph). Thanks to the crude-by-rail boom there's a two-year backlog on orders for an upgraded, somewhat safer version that has been in circulation since 2011. What’s more, those DOT-111 tank cars are often strung together in trains of 100 cars or more, exacerbating the risk of a major spill.

The NTSB recently issued a report that concluded, "railroad accidents involving crude oil have a potential for disastrous consequences and environmental contamination equal to that of the worst on-shore pipeline accidents," and that “oil spill response planning requirements for rail transportation of oil/petroleum products are practically nonexistent compared with other modes of transportation.” 

Oil by rail Updates & Resources

Fuel trains could derail up to 10 times a year over next two decades, feds predict


Matthew Brown and Josh Funk | Associated Press - February 23rd 2015

Press Clipping: The federal government 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. The 207 total derailments over the two-decade period would cause $4.5 billion in damage, according to the analysis, which predicts 10 "higher consequence events" causing more extensive damage and potential fatalities.

Northern B.C. chiefs want to stop oil transport through province by rail

February 23rd 2015

Press Clipping: First Nations leaders in northern British Columbia are threatening to block all attempts to move oil through the province by rail as they explore alternatives. Five aboriginal leaders are leading the call to halt oil by rail as they cite the landmark Tsilhqot'in (SILL'-ko-teen) court decision, which they say reinforces the requirement for First Nations to be consulted over the railway in their territory. Burns Lake Indian Band Chief Dan George says oil by rail is a serious threat and the chiefs feel obligated to explore safer alternatives.

Unregulated oil by rail versus Keystone XL: A false choice

Anthony Swift | NRDC - February 18th 2015

Blog Post: If the horrifying images of this weekend's West Virginia oil train fire and spill seem familiar; they should. We saw the same type of disaster in the state last summer too, when a train derailed last April in Lynchburg, Virginia, dumping 29,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is not going to take that oil off the rails. If we want to reduce the risks from oil trains, let's fix the trains and toughen safety standards.

Oil train derails in Canada, spills unknown amount of tar sands crude


Katie Valentine | Think Progress - February 17th 2015

Press Clipping: A train carrying crude oil derailed in northern Ontario, Canada late Saturday night, spilling oil and causing a fire. Twenty-nine of the 100 cars on the train went off the track near Timmins, Ontario, and seven of those cars were still on fire as of Monday afternoon. The derailment is just one of many that have occured in the U.S. and Canada in recent years, as oil producers increasingly rely on rail to transport crude.

West Virginia train derailment dumps oil into river


Richard Perez-Pena | New York Times - February 17th 2015

Press Clipping: A wrecked train hauling millions of pounds of oil continued burning in West Virginia on Tuesday, a day after it derailed in a snowstorm and sent fireballs ripping through the air. The derailment prompted the evacuation of nearby villages and dumped crude oil into a river, forcing the shut-off of local water supplies. Photos and videos posted online by witnesses showed the burning tankers that had tumbled down the Kanawha River bank or piled against each other at odd angles. There were multiple explosions as flames shot hundreds of feet in the sky.

Unsafe and unnecessary oil trains threaten 25 million Americans

Ralph Nader | Huffington Post - December 17th 2014

Press Clipping: We need an immediate ban on the most dangerous tank cars. We also need to slow these trains down; slower trains mean fewer accidents, and fewer spills and explosions when they do derail. The public and local fire fighters must be notified about train routes and schedules, and every oil train needs a comprehensive emergency response plan for accidents involving explosive Bakken crude and toxic tar sands.

Oil trains hide in plain sight

Russel Gold | Wall Street Journal - December 10th 2014

Press Clipping: Early last year, a new kind of pipeline full of volatile oil appeared in this college town, halfway between Philadelphia and Baltimore. Even though it carries carry more than a hundred thousand barrels of oil a day along Amtrak’s busiest passenger-rail corridor, nobody knew about it. This was possible because the oil here is transported by a virtual pipeline: mile-long strings of railroad tanker cars that travel from North Dakota to a refinery in Delaware.

VIDEO - Boom: North America’s Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem

December 8th 2014

Visual: The Weather Channel and InsideClimate News teamed up to investigate the problem of exploding railcars in "Boom: America's Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem." The documentary accompanies an investigation by reporters Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones, who explain why federal regulations to protect the public have been stalled by the railroads and the oil industry.