There was a serious train wreck this week, and this one was a literal train wreck as opposed to somebody’s political career imploding. It took place near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, where a CSX train went off the rails during a snowstorm, though details of what caused the derailment are still under investigation. While unfortunate, train crashes do happen from time to time, but we were fortunate that nobody was killed and only one homeowner in the area was treated for smoke inhalation. A freight train going off the rails isn’t generally as exciting for the news networks as a commuter train, particularly when there is no loss of life. What made this one a greater source of media fascination than others, though, was the fact that 19 cars which derailed were oil tankers which created a spill and a fire.
This fact immediately attracted the attention of those who constantly seek an avenue to criticize or demonize the energy industry. Just take a look at the first few paragraphs of the coverage offered by CNBC.
A CSX train carrying Bakken oil derailed and erupted into flames in West Virginia on Monday, adding to the growing debate about the safety of transporting crude on America’s railroads. The crash is the second in 10 months involving a CSX train, carrying oil from North Dakota.
“It is not safe to transport oil by train, full stop, period,” said Eric de Place, policy director for Sightline Institute, a sustainability-focused research firm in Seattle.
After a few sentences of the usual what, where and when details, the article jumps on some irresistible catnip.
Despite the industry’s efforts, the explosion of oil production in the Bakken formation—and America’s appetite for cheap energy—are pushing up against America’s rail system. Some portions of that infrastructure date back decades, when builders had no idea the rails would one day transport hundreds of thousands of crude oil a day.
The bulk of oil transported on America’s rails is from the Bakken formation—a large source of oil that straddles North Dakota, and portions of Montana and Canada.
The oil is buried deep in the ground, and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces natural gas and crude oil out of the shale buried deep below the earth by using highly pressurized and treated water.
DING DING DING! What should have been essentially a question about what caused the accident (train speed, faulty equipment, track damage, weather… ) or the safety of the tankers (they were newer, stronger models) immediately turned into a discussion of fracking, shale oil drilling in North Dakota and environmental issues.
The fact is that every industrial activity engaged in by man carries certain risks. When you transport a lot of oil – no matter whether it’s by rail, truck or pipeline – there will, on occasion, be spills. No mechanical system is perfect. The coverage could also have spent a bit more time examining one of the facts they did manage to get right… that we are currently moving nearly a half million tankers of oil per year by rail. The fact that we lost 19 should actually be a statistic showing precisely how well we’re doing in terms of safety.
While the system will never be perfect, that doesn’t mean that the industry shouldn’t constantly be seeking avenues of improvement, and that’s generally exactly what they do. These are newer, reinforced cars, but the fact that some of them leaked under the unimaginable strain of a crash shows that room for improvement remains and that’s something which the industry will need to look into. But a fair analysis of this event should also serve as a reminder that we need to be expanding, not fighting, the construction of new pipelines. There hasn’t been a major pipeline spill in ages because the technology is continually under review. Also, you always know where the pipelines are and they can be shut down quickly when a failure takes place. Trains travel through all sorts of terrain, including populated areas, and wildly varying weather conditions.
But the media won’t let any of that stand in the way of a good fossil fuels bashing story. And why would they?