Rail

Mon, 2014-01-27 05:00Ben Jervey
Ben Jervey's picture

Oil on the Tracks: More Oil Spills from Railcars in 2013 than in Previous Four Decades [Updated]

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, which governs rail transport of liquid fuels like crude.

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% 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.

Tue, 2013-10-29 14:15Carol Linnitt
Carol Linnitt's picture

US State Department Considers Rail Transport of Crude in Keystone XL Decision

keystone xl pipeline oil by rail

A decision on the proposed northern half of the Keystone XL pipeline - under review since 2008 - hinges on a final environmental review by the State Department now taking into consideration the importance oil-by-rail transport might have on growth of Alberta's tar sands.

US officials are evaluating the impact Keystone XL will have on expansion of the tar sands and whether or not the pipeline will worsen climate change. According to a new report by Reuters the evaluation has created a balancing test, “zeroing in on the question of whether shipment by rail is a viable alternative to the controversial project.”

The test's crux: “if there is enough evidence that the oil sands region will quickly grow with or without the 1,200-mile line, that would undercut an argument from environmentalists that the pipeline would turbocharge expansion,” Reuters reports.

President Barack Obama's State Department is asking rail executives to report on logistics, market dynamics and what obstacles oil-by-rail alternatives face in delivering 830,000 barrels of Canadian oil to Cushing, Oklahoma - the “pipeline crossroads of the world” - where Keystone XL's northern half will link up with Keystone XL's southern half which is expected to be up and running by the end of October.

In other words, could rail realistically provide an alternative to the Keystone XL, aiding in the expansion of Canada's highly-polluting tar sands?

Mon, 2013-07-22 10:00Ben Jervey
Ben Jervey's picture

Oil On The Tracks: The Crude-by-Rail Boom By the Numbers

The tragic oil train explosion earlier this month in Lac-Megantic, Quebec has focused a spotlight on the growing role of rail in the transportation of North American crude. But even after that tragedy, the extent of rail’s expansion in transporting oil is still little understood by the typical driver at the pump.

So DeSmog is going to dedicate a couple of posts expanding on an earlier post about this staggering boom in crude-by-rail – why it's happening, where the oil is going, what the risks are, and who stands to benefit most from the trend.  

On November 7, 2011, the Bakken Oil Express loaded up its first railcar with North Dakota crude and started churning south towards a Gulf Coast refinery. This wasn’t the first crude-by-rail shipment in U.S. history (John D. Rockefeller might have something to say about that), nor the first time in recent history that shale crude was shuttled out of the Bakken by rail.

But if you’re looking for a pivot point in the transportation trends of North American crude, the christening of the Bakken Oil Express is a fitting one.

The Bakken Oil Express is just one piece of a rapidly expanding network of North American oil tanker trains, but it's a particularly symbolic one, quickly brought online to handle the spiking production of North Dakota sweet crude. 

According to the Association of American Railroads (PDF), “In 2008, U.S. Class I railroads originated just 9,500 carloads of crude oil. In 2012, they originated nearly 234,000 carloads. Based on the more than 97,000 rail carloads of crude oil in the first quarter of this year, another big jump is expected in 2013.” 

That’s nearly a 2400-percent increase in five short years, and the upward trend looks to be growing even faster in 2013.

Sun, 2013-07-14 12:22Don Lieber
Don Lieber's picture

Whether By Train Or By Pipeline, Oil and Gas Transport Is Unsafe

The deadly oil train disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec on July 5, which (as of this writing) has left 33 people dead, with 17 still missing, and contaminated over 60 miles of local drinking water sources, has initiated a curious response across the media spectrum.

Some observers cite this accident as reason to consider pipelines, rather than trains, as the safer choice to transport oil and gas fossil fuels.

Two new major reports, however, reveal that this question misses a much larger point: oil, gas, and coal – the fossil fuel trio – indeed are inherently unsafe industries regardless of the mode of transport.

The first report, from Environment & Energy Publishing (E&E),  an organization which focuses on energy policy and markets, examined on-shore oil and gas and documented over 6,000 spills and accidents at oil and gas sites in 2012 - an average of more than 16 spills a day. A total of 15.6 million gallons of oil, fracking fluid, wastewater and other liquids were reported spilled at production sites during 2012. That's more than the 11 million gallons of oil that leaked from the shattered hull of the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

This represents a significant increase in accidents since 2010 and parallels the dramatic rise in drilling activity across key oil and gas producing states, such as North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.  

Fri, 2013-04-05 14:47Matthew Linnitt
Matthew Linnitt's picture

Average 250 Pipeline Accidents Each Year, Billions Spent on Property Damage

If only this were milk there would be no need to cry.

Cleanup efforts are currently underway in four separate oil spills that have occurred in the last ten days.

On March 27th, a train carrying Canadian tar sands dilbit jumped the rails in rural Minnesota spilling an estimated 30,000 gallons of black gold onto the countryside. 

Two days later a pipeline ruptured in the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, sending a river of Albertan tar sands crude gurgling down residential streets. And news is just breaking about a Shell oil spill that occurred the same day in Texas that dumped an estimated 700 barrels, including at least 60 barrels of oil into a waterway that leads to the Gulf of Mexico (stay tuned for more on that).

This week a Canadian Pacific freight train loaded with oil derailed, spilling its cargo over the Northwest Ontario countryside. Originally reported as a leak of 600 liters, the CBC reported on Thursday that the estimated volume of the spill has increased to 63,000 liters.

The accelerating expansion of Alberta’s tar sands has North America’s current pipeline infrastructure maxed out and, as a result, oil companies have been searching for an alternative way to move their product to market. As lobbying efforts around the stymied Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines intensify, oil companies have been quietly loading their toxic cargo onto freight trains.

Sat, 2013-02-16 10:00Ben Jervey
Ben Jervey's picture

Oil Aboard! Tar Sands Industry Eyes Nexen Rail Alternative to Stalled Pipelines

Facing enormous opposition to the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, Canada’s tar sands industry is taking to the tracks to get its sticky bitumen to China. Canadian and Chinese oil companies have explored the “pipeline by rail” option for years now, but over the past month, the prospect of tar sands trains has taken a few big steps closer toward reality.

For over a year, Calgary-based Nexen, Inc. has been developing plans to load tar sands crude onto trains for transport to the West Coast, where it would be loaded onto barges and shipped to China. Late last month, the Canadian government approved the sale of Nexen to a nationalized Chinese oil company, and earlier this week, the U.S. government, which has some say because of Nexen’s major operations in the Gulf of Mexico, gave its stamp of approval.  According to Nexen, the company now has “all the requisite approvals” and the deal “is expected to close the week of February 25, 2013.” (So much for Canadian tar sands benefiting Canadians first and foremost.)

Rail is considered more and more appealing to industry insiders as numerous plans to ship tar sands crude by pipeline have grown increasingly controversial and have been stalled by climate and private property activists from British Columbia to New England to Nebraska. (See: the Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway, and Trailbreaker/Enbridge Line 9.)

In fact, the industry is growing desperate to find ways to export the heavy Canadian crude, as export pipeline capacity is currently maxed out, causing a glut in supply in Alberta, which is driving down prices and causing, according to the Globe and Mail, “billions in forfeited revenues.”

Wed, 2012-10-17 18:00Ben Jervey
Ben Jervey's picture

Northwest Tribes Speak Out Against Coal Export Terminals

A quick update on the coal train exports front (which I’m henceforth going to start calling the Asian Coal Express, unless anyone else has any better suggestions. Leave 'em in the comments!) 

The New York Times ran a must-read piece for anyone concerned about coal companies targeting American taxpayer-owned public lands, carting it by rail over to coastal ports throughout the Pacific Northwest, loading it onto barges and Panamax vessels, and then shipping it overseas to sell at a steep discount to Asian markets.

The article looks at the battle over the Northwest export terminals through the lens of the local American Indian tribes, who worry about the impacts on local fishing rights and the threats to sacred sites.

Mon, 2012-10-08 10:25Ben Jervey
Ben Jervey's picture

Oil On the Tracks: How Rail Is Quietly Picking Up the Pipelines' Slack

We’ve talked a lot here on DeSmogBlog about oil (and tar sands crude) pipelines. You know, like the Keystone XL, which TransCanada is currently ramming through Texas, using whatever means necessary (including violence), and Enbridge's Northern Gateway, which was just declared “dead” by one of Canada's top newspapers.

And we’ve talked quite a bit about coal trains. All for very good reason. But we haven’t ever delved into the growing trend of shipping oil by train. Trains are a crucial – and growing – part of oil industry infrastructure, so it’s worthwhile to take a step back and get some perspective on this remarkable system. Understanding oil trains will help you understand, for instance, why oil markets are paying little attention to the pipeline debates.

Let’s start with the raw numbers.

Every week, over 17,000 carloads of oil are shipped in the U.S. and Canada. With roughly 600 to 700 barrels of oil in each carload, that’s between 1.4 and 1.6 million barrels of oil on the U.S. and Canadian rails every day. And these numbers are growing fast. This chart says it all.

Thu, 2012-04-26 05:45Ben Jervey
Ben Jervey's picture

Coal Train to Boardman: EPA Warns of "Significant" Public Health Threats in Northwest Coal Export Proposal

As demand for coal in the United States has cooled off in recent years, coal mining companies have been scrambling to deliver their dirty loads to customers abroad. But what does this mean for communities along the transportation routes, particularly at the ports and export terminals where the coal is offloaded from trains and onto boats?

The U.S. EPA, for one, is warning of the potential for “significant impacts to public health” in one such port town.

Coal exports have more than doubled over the past six years, and are at their highest levels in over two decades. According to an Associated Press evaluation of Energy Information Agency coal data, more than 107 million tons of coal were exported in 2011.

But that’s a small drop in the bucket (or lump in the stocking? sorry, couldn’t resist) of what coal companies hope to export in the very near future. (Farron Cousins covered the coal export trend here on DeSmogBlog earlier this year.)

Nowhere is the push to export coal being felt more than in the Pacific Northwest, where there are currently plans to ship more than 100 million tons each year, according to the Sightline Institute.

Fri, 2012-02-03 13:00Steve Horn
Steve Horn's picture

Warren Buffett Exposed: The Oracle of Omaha and the Tar Sands

Credit: Pete Souza, Office of the President

On January 23, Bloomberg News reported Warren Buffett's Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), owned by his lucrative holding company Berkshire Hathaway, stands to benefit greatly from President Barack Obama’s recent cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline

If built, TransCanada's Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline would carry tar sands crude, or bitumen (“dilbit”) from Alberta, B.C. down to Port Arthur, Texas, where it would be sold on the global export market

If not built, as revealed recently by DeSmogBlog, the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side, and could include increased levels of ecologically hazardous gas flaring in the Bakken Shale, or else many other pipeline routes moving the prized dilbit to crucial global markets.

Rail is among the most important infrastructure options for ensuring tar sands crude still moves to key global markets, and the industry is pursuing rail actively. But transporting tar sands crude via rail is in many ways a dirtier alternative to the KXL pipeline. “Railroads too present environmental issues. Moving crude on trains produces more global warming gases than a pipeline,” explained Bloomberg.

A key mover and shaker behind the push for more rail shipments is Warren Buffett, known by some as the “Oracle of Omaha” – of “Buffett Tax” fame – and the third richest man in the world, with a net worth of $39 billion. With or without Keystone XL, Warren Buffett stands to profit enormously from multiple aspects of the Alberta Tar Sands project. He also, importantly, maintains close ties with President Barack Obama.

Subscribe to Rail