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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

The tar sands train that couldn’t

Lorne Stockman and Anthony Swift | Oil Change International and NRDC - October 21st 2014

Blog Post: Any claim that Keystone XL passes the President’s climate test rests on the argument that carbon intensive tar sands crude will be developed at the same rate with or without the massive pipeline, because the dirty oil can just as easily be moved by train. But one look at the underperformance of the first unit-train-loading terminal with access to tar sands crude, a tale of budget overruns, missed targets and operational failures, shows just how spurious that argument is.

Train in Alabama oil spill was carrying 2.7 million gallons of crude

Soumya Karlamangla | LA Times - October 20th 2014

Press Clipping: A train that derailed and exploded in rural Alabama was hauling 2.7 million gallons of crude oil, according to officials. The 90-car train was crossing a timber trestle above a wetland near Aliceville late Thursday night when approximately 25 rail cars and two locomotives derailed, spilling crude oil into the surrounding wetlands and igniting a fire that was still burning Saturday.

145,000+ comments on draft oil train regulations call for immediate ban on dangerous tanker cars

Eddie Scher | ForestEthics - October 1st 2014

Blog Post: Today citizens groups submitted more than 145,000 individual public comments to the Obama administration on two rulemakings on the safety of oil trains and emergency response to derailments, spills and fires. The strong public response was highly critical of the draft regulations proposed by the Department of Transportation, and called on the administration to take immediate steps to improve oil train safety.

Wrong side of the Tracks: Why rail is not the answer to the Tar Sands’s market access problem


Lorne Stockman et. al | Oil Change International - September 9th 2014

Publication: The debate around pipeline versus rail is a red herring. The real choice is between climate damage resulting from the status quo and a modern, low-carbon energy future that can ensure a safe climate and environment for generations to come. One of the first steps towards that future is to stop extracting more tar sands crude that climate science clearly indicates we cannot afford to burn. This report confirms that rail cannot serve as a replacement for pipelines, and will remain a niche market for tar sands transportation.

Did the Conservatives actually read damning Lac-Mégantic report?


August 20th 2014

Press Clipping: Just tell people you haven't gotten around to reading the report yet. Because if you haven't read it, it hasn't happened yet. That appears to be the Conservatives' bright idea on how to defend themselves against Tuesday's damning Transporation Safety Board report that concluded Transport Canada's weak oversight was a cause and contributing factor in last year's Lac-Mégantic train derailment that killed 47 people.

Canadian oil sands crude is the X factor in crude-by-rail rule

Elana Schor | E&E News - August 13th 2014

Press Clipping: The Department of Transportation's new proposal to phase out aging tank cars involved in a spate of recent oil train derailments assumes that 23,000 of the older models would transition to carrying Canadian oil sands fuel, a projection that could upend the debate over whether rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline project would push more heavy crude onto the tracks. “You're just moving the risk around rather than eliminating it," Greenpeace Canada climate campaigner Keith Stewart said in an interview.

Why the debate over Keystone and emissions comes down to rail

Andrew Leach | Maclean's - August 13th 2014

Press Clipping: Canadian energy economist Andrew Leach, in Maclean’s, argues that the Keystone XL debate really is a debate about Economics 101, but it’s not about world oil supply and demand so much as it is about the supply and demand for oil transportation services out of western Canada and specifically about the possibility of alternative pipelines and the scalability of rail.

Top 10 reasons to hate Obama’s new standards for explosive oil trains


Matt Krogh | ForestEthics - July 24th 2014

Blog Post: After months of study and too much time listening to the oil industry, President Obama proposed weak new standards for oil trains. How weak? Well, they give the oil industry a license to continue threatening the safety of millions of Americans with hazardous, flammable oil trains. What are the problems with these new rules? Here we go in 10 easy steps.