There’s a lot of oil coming up out of the ground in the U.S. right now. Especially in North Dakota and Montana where there is a good old fashioned oil boom underway. We’ve noted before that increasingly that oil is making its way to market by rail. Given the unprecedented ramp up in production, it was inevitable that pipelines wouldn’t be able to handle all that extra goo. But shipping all that oil by rail is causing some problems. For one thing, the massive increase in the number of oil cars rolling across the land is tying up other rail traffic. Wheat farmers, for instance, are having trouble getting their crops to export terminals on the Pacific coast, and face skyrocketing freight charges. The tracks they need to move their grain are too crammed with oil trains.
Also, those oil trains have a tendency to go off the rails. Not only that, the oil from those north plains oil fields, known as Bakken crude, tends to be more flammable than your garden variety oil. The combination of flying rail cars and volatile fuel has had some very unpleasant consequences. The issue just got close to home here at Knowledge Mosaic. Last week a Burlington Northern train carrying Brakken crude derailed underneath the heavily-traveled Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. Fortunately, the tanker cars didn’t explode and nobody was injured. But having those tanks flip over a mere mile and a half from our offices was a disturbing reminder just how vulnerable densely packed urban areas are to these rolling bombs. The first thought that popped into my mind was the thundering disaster in Quebec when an oil train derailed, killing nearly 50 people.
The dangers oil trains pose has drawn the attention of the Department of Transportation which has released details of proposed rules intended to improve the safe transportation of large quantities of flammable liquids. The Department proposes a wide ranging number of changes, from phasing out older tank cars, requiring upgraded braking systems, requiring more comprehensive flammability testing of oil prior to shipping, requiring future cars to have thicker hulls and rollover protection, and imposing reduced speed limits for oil shipments, especially in urban areas where any explosions would be the most destructive.
There will be a sixty day comment period in which the energy sector is sure to argue strenuously against the proposals. The railroad companies themselves are none too comfortable with the risks these shipments pose and are likely to support the regulations. As are the citizens of the countless cities and towns through which the trains run. Including all those people who drive over the Magnolia Bridge every day.