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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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Overview:
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

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.

Groups bring new legal action for federal ban of dangerous oil tank rail cars

Eddie Scher | Forest Ethics - December 2nd 2014

Blog Post: Today, Earthjustice on behalf of Sierra Club and ForestEthics challenged the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) denial in November of the groups’ petition for an immediate ban on the most hazardous DOT-111 rail tank cars carrying explosive Bakken crude oil. “The oil industry wants to double the number of tanker cars moving crude oil on US tracks before removing any of these antiquated cars,” said Patti Goldman, Earthjustice attorney. “The Department of Transportation is allowing industry up to six years to get these cars off the tracks. That’s too long to wait for a recall of these dangerous tank cars.”

Tar sands train to ruin

Lorne Stockman and Anthony Swift | Oil Change International and NRDC - October 28th 2014

Blog Post: Rather than proving that rail can be an alternative to pipelines to the Gulf Coast, Southern Pacific Resources’ experience illustrates the profound economic obstacles associated with tar sands production. The combination of high transportation costs and poor performance at its main tar sands SAGD project have driven the company to the verge of bankruptcy. The poor performance of tar sands by rail to the Gulf has only proved why the industry needs projects like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to expand.

‘Bomb trains’: A crude awakening for Richmond, Calif.

Feature

Audrea Lim | Aljazeera America - October 27th 2014

Press Clipping: Lipo Chanthanasak, who moved to Richmond from Laos 24 years ago, lives within the potential blast zone should an oil train derail on the BNSF Railway tracks or the Kinder Morgan rail facility. The 70-year-old retiree says he only learned that crude was being transported through his community because of his involvement with the nonprofit Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN. Many of his neighbors, he says, are unaware, but the threat is all too real.

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.