A new analysis of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has shown that more crude oil was spilled in US rail incidents last year than during the previous 37 years, since the federal government began to collect data on rail spills.
The data suggests that in 2013 more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars. This includes the major derailment in Aliceville, Alabama on the 8th of November when 748,800 gallons spilt as the train derailed in a swampy area and burst into flames, but not yet the derailment in Casselton, North Dakota 30th of December, for which the PHMSA have yet to receive data, although it is estimated to be in the region of 400,000 gallons. Nor does this figure include spills that occurred in Canada, where the 6th of July derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec spilled an estimated 1.5 million plus gallons of crude oil.
In contrast to 2013, the total crude oil spilled from 1975, when federal records began, to 2012 was 800,000 gallons. In fact in eight of those years not one drop of crude oil was spilt, and in five only one gallon or less was spilt. (Related article: DOT-111 Safety Major Issue in Crude-By-Rail Debate)
The increase noted last year is due to the fact delivering oil by rail has become a much more popular choice of transport as pipeline capacity has been unable to keep pace with the increases in oil production during the North American shale boom. The Association of American Railroads has estimated that 400,000 carloads of crude oil were shipped last year, and with each car holding 28,800 gallons that totals more than 11.5 billion gallons.
Out of a total 11.5 billion gallons transported by rail, to only spill 1.15 million gallons equals a 99.99 percent success rate, but 1.15 billion is still a large amount.
Other than the vast increase in the amount of crude transported by rail, another potential reason for the increase in spills is that until just a few years ago crude oil carrying trains were not 80-100 cars long as they are today.
Last week, the Washington regulators of crude oil shipments transported by rail met with representatives from the railroad and oil industry in order to discuss changes to how crude oil is shipped by rail, including new designs for tanker cars, appropriate driving speeds, and ideal routes to take. The changes are expected to be announced within the next 30 days.