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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

ForestEthics releases comprehensive report detailing fossil fuel threats to Pacific Northwest


March 12th 2014

Publication: The explosive growth of development of oil and coal deposits in the center of North America, combined with strong demand in Asian markets, puts the Pacific Northwest at the center of a boom in oil and coal infrastructure proposals that bring new and untested risks to our region. Today, ForestEthics released Off the Rails, a comprehensive analysis of multiple and varied threats this fossil fuel influx poses.

Massive oil-by-rail plan in East Bay put on hold

Jean Tepperman | East Bay Express - February 20th 2014

Press Clipping: Pittsburg city government will go back to the drawing board for another round of environmental review on a controversial proposal to build a giant crude oil rail terminal near downtown. Environmental groups and local organizations opposing the proposed crude oil terminal declared a “huge victory”. “This is a good example of democracy in action: elected officials responding to a mobilized, empowered community,” said Lyana Monterrey, a Pittsburg resident who helped initiate local opposition to the project.

Older rail tank cars in crosshairs, but questions over cost to upgrade

Lauren Krugel | Canadian Press - February 20th 2014

Press Clipping: The model of railcar involved in last summer's disaster in Lac Megantic, Que., that claimed 47 lives was in the crosshairs of some big Canadian industry players this week. "There's been this assumption coming out of the oil industry that they have to be allowed to move oil to market by any means necessary, and the truth is, that's for Canadians to decide, not the oil industry,” said Greenpeace Canada’s Keith Stewart. "If they can't move their product safely, then they shouldn't be able to move it."

Oil train derailment spills about 7,500 gallons of tar sands crude near Pittsburgh


Iris Marie Bloom | Protecting Our Waters - February 18th 2014

Blog Post: Twenty-one cars of a long, 118-car train carrying crude oil and liquified natural gas (propane, or LPG) derailed yesterday morning, spilling about 7,500 gallons of tar sands crude in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, about 36 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Consider yourselves alarmed, observers, wherever you live. If you live in a rural area or small town anywhere that these mile-long oil trains travel, please call your town or county’s governing body today expressing that alarm, and urging that these unsafe trains be halted.