Is oil too dangerous to ship by rail?
In the wake of the Lac-Megantic oil train disaster, it's important to focus on how to improve rail safety, Styles writes, and not use the tragedy to advance social causes.
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Crude oil, especially light crudes like those produced from the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, is flammable, and thus constitutes hazardous cargo. However, railroads routinely carry a wide variety of flammable and otherwise hazardous materials, including propane, gasoline, benzene, ethanol, chlorine gas, sulfuric acid and a variety of other chemicals. Safety is not determined by the cargo — if it was, none of these substances would be on trains — but by the combination of the equipment used to carry it, the rules and processes that dictate how to handle it, and the people who operate these systems. It’s no coincidence that these are the areas on which the investigations and preliminary regulatory responses have focused.Skip to next paragraph
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Then there are the market and logistical circumstances that resulted in a refinery in St. John, New Brunswick that supplies both Canadian and US consumers and normally processes oil imported by tanker, purchasing oil produced in North Dakota and shipped halfway across the continent by train. North American oil production is expanding rapidly, with significant economic and energy security benefits. Much of this new oil is found in places not adequately served by the large network of existing pipelines. That situation may eventually be rectified, but in the meantime the mismatch between growing landlocked oil supplies and limited pipeline outlets for them has created an opportunity for rail operators reeling from the much larger shale-gas-induced decline in coal shipments. Serving that need keeps people and trains employed. And that, ultimately, is why a train carrying Bakken crude was on a track in Lac-Megantic this July.
Conclusions: The Right Focus Is on Improving Rail Safety
I can scarcely imagine what the survivors of the Lac-Megantic disaster and the families of the victims have been going through for the last month. Their lives will never be the same. But whatever the cause of the accident is eventually determined to have been — human error, mechanical failure, aging infrastructure or something else — it was not caused by the oil in those tank cars.
This accident presents us with two opportunities: One entails figuring out what happened and applying the lessons to making rail transport of all hazardous cargoes safer; the other involves using the tragedy to advance a social cause such as “ending our reliance on oil.” As alluring as the latter might seem to some, the communities through which such freight travels in the course of keeping our economy running will benefit much more from the former.
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