Shale Oil May be Making Railroad Oil Transport More Dangerous

The rise of shale oil and longer shipping distances have spurred railroad regulators’ push to update oil cars

Oil Train
Michael Wells/fstop/Corbis

A train falling off the tracks caused a massive oil spill in Lynchburg, Virginia in April. Last year, a train carrying oil derailed in Québec, killing 47 people and destroying most of downtown Lac-Mégantic. And in North Dakota last December a crash burned more than 20 train cars

All those incidents have served as inspiration for new guidelines released Wednesday by the Department of Transportation that, if approved, will tell railroads and companies that move oil by rail to update their fleet of aging vehicles within the next two years.  

In addition to an aging fleet of rail cars, changes in where we get our oil are posing new problems. Crude oil from North Dakota and other western plays is located far away from coastal refineries, and often has to travel more than 1,000 miles to get to the coast. But that's not all, says National Geographic

Also at issue is the particular composition of crude coming out of the Bakken shale. In a report accompanying the rulemaking announcement, the Department of Transportation noted that oil coming out of the Bakken shale "has a higher gas content, higher vapor pressure, lower flash point and boiling point and thus a higher degree of volatility than most other crudes in the U.S., which correlates to increased ignitability and flammability."

Unsurprisingly, the American Petroleum Institute, an industry-backed lobbying group, disagrees with the federal agency's finding that shale oil might be more difficult to ship than conventional crude.  

Whether there will actually be enough new rail cars to replace the old fleet any time soon is questionable at best. From USA Today:

Under the proposed rules, the rail cars facing retrofit or phaseout — known as DOT-111s — are designed to carry a wide range of products. They account for 228,000 of the 335,000 units in the active fleet, and 92,000 of them move flammable liquids, such as oil and ethanol, according to the AAR. It says only 18,000 have been built to the industry's latest safety standards.

That dearth of new cars stacks on top of the fact that transport of crude oil by rail increased 44 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to industry group Association of American Railroads (AAR). 

The Department of Transportation is still seeking public comment on other aspects of the proposed train regulations. The finalized rules will likely be announced next year.

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