Tar Sands Solutions Network

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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.

Imports of Canadian crude into the U.S. have grown to new highs in 2015, filling existing pipeline capacity. If no new pipelines are built, and we don't allow new rail terminals to go ahead, tar sands production cannot continue to grow.

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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

WesPac Energy withdraws California oil terminal proposal

Eddie Scher | Forest Ethics - December 9th 2015

Blog Post: On November 16, WesPac Energy formally withdrew its proposed 242,000 barrel-per-day oil storage and transfer facility in Pittsburg, California. The crude oil facility would have included a marine port for oil tankers, more than a dozen oil storage tanks, an oil train offloading terminal, and multiple pipelines to local refineries. “We knew that WesPac was not good for our community and having them as our neighbor would do nothing to make Pittsburg a better place to live” says Kalli Graham, co-founder of the Pittsburg Defense Council."

Permitting new crude-by-rail terminals would be permitting climate disaster

Greg Muttitt - November 15th 2015

Blog Post: The states of Washington and Oregon are facing a quadrupling of their crude-by-rail unloading capacity, as the industry proposes a slew of new rail terminals to receive up to eight extra 100-car trains per day of tar sands and Bakken crude. In the absence of new pipelines, the new rail terminals could become the sole driver of new growth in the tar sands. Not only do the proposed terminals pose an enormous safety risk to communities in the path of the oil trains they would serve, but they are clearly a threat to our shared climate.

One million California children play alongside dangerous oil trains


September 2nd 2015

Blog Post: A 2015 analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity found that more than 1 million California children attend school within one mile of railroads used by oil trains, which have experienced a dramatic increase in explosions and derailments across the country in recent years. The investigation identified more than 2,300 elementary, middle and high schools in 29 counties located within a mile of confirmed oil train routes in California.

Santa Clara Co. supervisors voice opposition to proposed crude oil trains

August 26th 2015

Press Clipping: The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Tuesday a resolution against a project that would bring trains carrying oil through the county. The proposed rail spur extension project in San Luis Obispo County would allow up to five trains with 80 cars to travel through 40 miles of track in the county on a weekly basis. Supervisor Ken Yeager said the project is “very unsafe” for an urban area like Santa Clara County, which has nearly 2 million residents.

Gilles Duceppe: Quebec can’t be ‘highway for Albertan oil’

August 19th 2015

Press Clipping: After weeks of criticizing TransCanada's Energy East plan to build a pipeline through Quebec to New Brunswick, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe blasted the proposal to build a rail terminal in Belledune, N.B. "We cannot let Quebec be transformed into a highway for Albertan oil,'’ said Duceppe. The Bloc leader called on his opponents in the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives to reject the Belledune rail terminal proposal.

Time to Say No: Comment period ends for ill-advised crude oil export terminal in Washington

Joshua Axelrod | NRDC - August 6th 2015

Blog Post: Along the banks of the Columbia River, in Vancouver, Washington, a partnership between Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies is proposing to build North America's largest crude-by-rail handling facility. Last week, the period for public comment closed on the scope of environmental review for each regulator's consideration of whether to grant the necessary Clean Water Act permits that Tesoro-Savage would need to before it builds the facility. The answer is clearly no.

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.