Quantcast

More Oil Spilled From Railcars in 2013 Than in Previous Four Decades Combined

By Ben Jervey

As a direct result of the Bakken shale oil boom, more crude oil was spilled from rail cars last year than in the previous four decades combined. That’s according to a McClatchy analysis of federal data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which governs rail transport of liquid fuels like crude.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on Dec. 30, 2013, outside Casselton, ND. Photo credit: PHMSA

The analysis revealed more than 1.15 million gallons of crude spilled in 2013, considerably more than the 800,000 gallons spilled from 1975 (when the government started collecting data on spills) to 2012.

The rail industry likes to boast a 99.99 percent success rate in delivery shipments without incident, and that number remained consistent in 2013, with 1.15 million of the roughly 11.5 billion gallons shipped by rail being spilled. What did change was the volume of actual crude being shipped by rail.

As we’ve covered before, there is a massive boom in crude-by-rail throughout North America, with a nearly 2400-percent increase in crude railcar shipments in five short years from 2008-2012. As it turned out, 2013 was another record-setting year.

These charts from the Association of American Railroads and the U.S. Energy Information Association show the trend pretty clearly:

Bakken crude production has become so dependent on trains that an official at North Dakota’s Mineral Resources Department claimed last month that 90 percent of the state’s crude would move by rail in 2014.

The McClatchy piece features an interactive map that allows you to see the size and location of every spill, year-by-year. 

Several years show just a single spill. Most years, up until 2008, experienced fewer than a handful. There wasn't a single spill recorded in North Dakota until 2008, when the Bakken boom truly commenced and crude-by-rail took off in the region. 

Here's 1993: 

And here's 2013, where the predominant shipping routes from North Dakota to Gulf Coast refineries is clear:

You can explore the data and play around with the map at the bottom of the original McClatchy piece

The McClatchy report doesn't factor any of the spills that have already occurred in 2014, nor derailments that occur north of the border in Canada, like the fatal Lac-Mégantic explosion in August. 

Within the past year—and indeed the past few weeks—North American tracks have experienced a number of very high profile—and, again, in some cases fatal—crude-by-rail derailments, explosions and spills. Here's recent DeSmog coverage of some of the worst and most recent: 

  • In August, a runaway oil train tragically exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, releasing an estimated 1.58 million gallons of oil and killing 47 people.
  • In March, a Canadian Pacific Railway train jumped the tracks and spilled roughly 30,000 gallons of tar sands crude in western Minnesota.
  • In October, a train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed west of Alberta, Canada, causing an explosion and fire.
  • In November, 20 cars of a 90-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded in western Alabama
  • On Dec. 30, a 106-car oil train slammed into another derailed train in Casselton, ND, exploding and sending a massive mushroom cloud hundreds of feet into the sky, and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of local residents. 
  • Earlier this week, a train carring Bakken crude across a Philadelphia bridge derailed and dangled precariously over an expressway and the Schuylkill River. 

While derailments may still be statistically rare, the massive increase in overall shipments of Bakken crude on North American railways makes some incidents inevitable. Because of the chemical nature of Bakken shale oil, this presents a unique threat. On Jan. 2, the PHMSA announced that the crude oil being transported from the Bakken region "may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil."

According to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, at a closed door meeting between federal regulators, railroad representatives and an official of the American Petroleum Institute earlier this month, the rail industry agreed to take voluntary steps to immediately make their crude-by-rail shipments safer. What exactly these voluntary measures would include is so far a mystery.  

Meanwhile, regulators at PHMSA are expanding the so-called "Bakken blitz" to investigate the chemical makeup of crude from the Bakken shale plays in order to determine whether more strict regulations of their transport are necessary.

Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.

 

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Bernie Sanders holds his first presidential campaign rally at Brooklyn College on March 02 in Brooklyn, New York. Kena Betancur / VIEWpress / Corbis. Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has become the first contender in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary field to pledge to offset all of the greenhouse gas emissions released by campaign travel, The Huffington Post reported Thursday.

Read More Show Less
An aerial view of the flooding at the Camp Ashland, Nebraska on March 17. Nebraska National Guard / Staff Sgt. Herschel Talley / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The record flooding in the Midwest that has now been blamed for four deaths could also have lasting consequences for the region's many farmers.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

In tea, food, or just on your windowsill, embrace the fragrance and fantastic healing potential of herbs.

Read More Show Less

By Ana Santos Rutschman

The world of food and drug regulation was rocked earlier this month by the news of a change in leadership at the Food and Drug Administration. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb resigned and will step down in early April. His temporary replacement is Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute.

Read More Show Less
MartinPrescott / iStock / Getty Images

On Wednesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the first 20 chemicals it plans to prioritize as "high priority" for assessment under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Given the EPA's record of malfeasance on chemicals policy over the past two years, it is clear that these are chemicals that EPA is prioritizing to ensure that they are not properly evaluated or regulated.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Strawberries top the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list of U.S. produce most contaminated with pesticides. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP / Getty Images

Which conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables in the U.S. are most contaminated with pesticides? That's the question that the Environmental Working Group answers every year with its "Dirty Dozen" list of produce with the highest concentration of pesticides after being washed or peeled.

Read More Show Less
A drilling rig in a Wyoming natural gas field. William Campbell / Corbis via Getty Images

A U.S. federal judge temporarily blocked oil and gas drilling on 300,000 acres of federal leases in Wyoming Tuesday, arguing that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) "did not sufficiently consider climate change" when auctioning off the land, The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
Mizina / iStock / Getty Images

By Ryan Raman, MS, RD

Oats are widely regarded as one of the healthiest grains you can eat, as they're packed with many important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Read More Show Less