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West Virginia oil derailment reignites debate over rail vs. pipelines

By   /   February 17, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

AP photo

RAIL VS. PIPELINES: A fire burns after a train derailed Monday outside Charleston, West Virginia.

By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org

A fiery train derailment that scattered freight-rail tank cars carrying crude oil and forced the evacuation of hundreds of families in West Virginia has revived the ongoing debate of pipelines vs. railroads.

“That argument has been there for quite some time,” said Bob Schulz, professor with the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.

It’s also drawn into the fray the long-running battle over the Keystone XL pipeline.

Officials are trying to figure out why the 109-car train went off the track along the Kanawha River Monday and ignited at least 14 tankers, prompting the state’s governor to declare a state of emergency.

“All you heard was a big boom,” Becky Nuckols of the town of Boomer told Associated Press Monday night. No injuries have been reported.

The CSX trains were heading from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to an oil depot in Yorktown, Virginia.

“It may indeed lead to more calls” for using more pipelines rather than rail to move oil across long distances, Tony Hatch, a transportation analyst who has worked with major railroads including CSX, said in an email to Watchdog.org, adding, “that is what politicians do but we need to know why this happened.”

With oil production booming in recent years, capacity is running high and more crude is being shipped by rail. The numbers have nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013.

The West Virginia crash marks at least the ninth rail mishap carrying crude oil in less than two years in the U.S. and Canada. A similar crash occurred last year on the same CSX line in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“If you multiply the percent of oil traveling over the rail lines, I don’t think the probability of an accident would go down, it would go up because there’s extra traffic,” Schulz said in a telephone interview.

The railroad industry insists it’s doing a good job.

“Freight railroads move each oil train under rules as rigorous as those required for more hazardous materials,” the Association of American Railroads website says. “Thanks to a nationwide rail network infused by years of major private investment reaching into the hundreds of billions of dollars, railroads are transporting what America’s economy needs and helping the nation achieve energy independence.”

Hatch said 2014 was a good year overall for rail safety, and the number of incidents is going down. “They spend billions on it, so it had better,” Hatch said.

Even before Monday’s derailment, some energy industry advocates have called for more pipelines and less railroads.

“Trains need to be a supplement, not a replacement” for pipelines,  Michael Whatley, executive vice president of Consumer Energy Alliance, told Bloomberg News last year.

But rail defenders say pipeline leaks can be more damaging than a train derailment because a leak can be harder to spot at first and can potentially release more oil. However, a report released by the State Department in March 2013 said rails have an “increased statistical likelihood of spills.”

“Every piece of the data I’ve seen says pipelines are safer than rail,” Schulz said.

Environmentalists don’t like either method, urging that both rail and pipelines be phased out.

“The recent spate of rail accidents and pipeline leaks and spills doesn’t provide arguments for one or the other,” Canadian scientist and environmental activist David Sukuzki wrote last year. “Instead, it indicates that rapidly increasing oil and gas development and shipping ever greater amounts, by any method, will mean more accidents, spills, environmental damage — even death. The answer is to step back from this reckless plunder and consider ways to reduce our fossil fuel use.”

The West Virginia derailment comes as Congress cleared a bill approving of the Keystone XL pipeline and sending it to President Obama, who has said he will veto the measure.

If ultimately approved, the 1,179-mile Keystone pipeline would have a capacity to carry 830,000 gallons from the oil-sands fields in Canada, connecting in Nebraska and then taking oil to refineries in southern states along the Gulf of Mexico.

“I think this (West Virginia accident) will be an argument for” Keystone XL, said Schulz. “If the Keystone pipeline were in, the probability of less oil shipped by rail would be quite significant.”

Hatch said he isn’t so sure the West Virginia derailment will have much effect on the Keystone debate.

“This has nothing to do with (Keystone) XL,” Hatch said, pointing out that the derailment was on a different route and the “Canadian oil-sand product wouldn’t explode.”

Another factor to consider when comparing moving oil via pipeline to rail is cost.

“Shipping by rail costs $8 to $9 a barrel more, so oil companies would rather ship it by pipeline,” Schulz said.

But since the pipeline structure in some places such as the Bakken is spotty or can’t handle the current volume, companies resort to rail — or even moving their oil shorter distances by truck, which is even more costly.

The railroad industry has been waiting for months for word on new U.S. Department of Transportation regulations for phasing out aging freight-rail tank cars.

“You’ve got older tank cars that are more risky,” Schulz said.

But late Monday, CSX announced the rail cars involved in the West Virginia derailment were newer models designed to be puncture resistant.


Rob formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.