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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

Santa Barbara says no to oil train


Nick Welsh | Santa Barbara Independent - July 30th 2015

Press Clipping: The Santa Barbara City Council voted 5-2 to write a letter urging that San Luis Obispo reject an application by Phillips 66 to expand the railroad spur at its Nipomo refinery, thus creating the space necessary for a 1.4-mile-long train — carrying up to 80 cars of oil — to use the facility as a destination. Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Gregg Hart put the item before the council, arguing the risk posed by the five oil trains expected per week was unacceptable.

100 Actions, 5,000 people: Biggest oil trains protest in history!


Ethan Buckner | ForestEthics - July 15th 2015

Blog Post: What a week. In total, more than 5,000 people participated in 100 events during this year’s #StopOilTrains Week of Action - amounting to the largest protest against oil trains in history. Across the US and Canada, communities took to the streets, held memorial vigils, blockaded the tracks, hosted educational events, hung banners, canvassed neighborhoods, and spoke out at public hearings. This effort -- led by grassroots leaders and communities most impacted by oil train transport -- sent ripples across North America.

Cuomo administration blocks massive tar sands oil facility expansion in Albany, NY

May 25th 2015

Blog Post: In the face of a court challenge from a broad coalition of environmental and community groups and massive community opposition, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) today halted Global Companies’ proposed expansion of its massive Albany oil train facility to handle tar sands oil. “The Sierra Club applauds Governor Cuomo and the DEC for using the State’s full jurisdictional powers to protect New Yorkers from the growing threat of unsafe tar sands-by-rail transport,” said Roger Downs, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter.

Federal data: Not many oil trains for Keystone XL to replace

Editors | Tar Sands Solutions - April 6th 2015

Blog Post: New data on crude oil shipments released last week by the Department of Energy shows that there are very few oil trains taking the path of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, undermining industry talking points that building Keystone XL would keep dangerous trains off the tracks. The data, released in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s first monthly report on crude by rail, confirms that the bulk of oil trains are traveling from the Bakken region in North Dakota to refineries in the mid-Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest, and that only about five percent of the oil moving by rail is coming to the Gulf Coast from Canada or the Midwest.

Bitumen fireballs wreck tank car transition scheme

David Thomas | Railway Age - March 10th 2015

Press Clipping: Before CN’s first Gogama wreck Feb. 14, there was a widespread and comforting belief among railroaders, regulators and, yes, even railroad reporters, that tar sands bitumen was much safer for transport by rail than light or conventional crude oils. We now know, thanks to Gogama 1 and Gogama 2, that neither dilbit nor synbit, the synthetically diluted variant of tar sands oil, are safer than untreated Bakken crude. Consequently, the strategy for renewal of the tank car fleet is based upon an entirely erroneous premise. The whole schedule must be recalculated, based on the evidence that bitumen is not fit for carriage in general-purpose tank cars.

Another train carrying crude oil derails near Gogama, Ont.

March 7th 2015

Press Clipping: Several cars have caught fire after a Canadian National Railway train carrying crude oil derailed in northern Ontario, prompting officials to advise nearby residents to stay indoors and avoid consuming water from local sources. The Transportation Safety Board said 30 to 40 cars derailed four kilometres southwest of Gogama, Ont., and there were no initial reports of injuries. Several cars have caught fire, police said, and others entered the Mattagami River System. This is the fourth CN Rail derailment in northern Ontario this year. A train derailed last month, spilling crude oil and forcing the closure of the rail line.

Tank cars spilled one million litres at CN crash


Len Gillis | Timmins Times - March 6th 2015

Press Clipping: A preliminary report from the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) estimates that more than a million litres of crude oil or petroleum distillates was released as the result of the CN train derailment last week on the mainline between Gogama and Foleyet. The report indicated that the tank cars that broke open and spilled petroleum product, or caught fire, were the Class-111 tank cars, all constructed within the past three years and compliant with industry standards. The TSB report also suggested that even the newer Class-111 tank cars are not tough enough to withstand even low speed crashes and that a better tank car is needed.