CBS: Train derailment highlights oil-transportation issues

A train derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia dumped as much as 50,000 gallons of oil, the latest such rail disaster in a recent series. Thus far, the spill doesn’t pose a safety issue for local water use, as the river into which the rail cars tumbled is only used as a drought resource. CBS News raises the point that the safety of oil transport by rail has become a serious problem, and that the federal government has thus far acted slowly to respond to it:

Concern about the safety of oil trains was heightened last July when runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3 million gallons of light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was comparable to gasoline.

“This is another national wake-up call,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman said of the Lynchburg crash. “We have these oil trains moving all across the United States through communities and the growth and distribution of this has all occurred, unfortunately, while the federal regulators have been asleep.”

“This is just an area in which the federal rulemaking process is too slow to protect the American people,” he said.

There have been eight significant oil train accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to the safety board.

This has become an issue, although more in the Midwest and Plains states. The product of the Bakken field has to get shipped by rail to refineries in the South, which has also involved a series of rail accidents.  The federal government and the railroad industry reached an accord on new voluntary measures to reduce oil-related rail accidents in February, but these either didn’t get implemented in time, or don’t address the cause of the Lynchburg failure (which may have been storm-weakened soil under the tracks).

There are really only two ways to address oil-transport issues. Either we need to build new refineries closer to production, or we need pipelines rather than rail for transport. The US has barely budged on new refineries over the last 30-plus years, and the regulatory hurdles for building new plants — even though demand would support it — makes this option nearly impossible. That leaves us with pipelines, and this administration has used the regulatory hurdles on the Keystone XL pipeline to indefinitely stall the project. They may kill it to appease their allies in the environmental movement.

That won’t stop us from producing and moving oil, however, even if that’s the real goal of the environmentalists blocking refinery and pipeline projects. It just means that we’ll continue to do so in the least-safe manner.