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Shipping Oil by Rail--What Could Go Wrong? - Sierra Daily

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Sierra Daily

Mar 27, 2013

Shipping Oil by Rail--What Could Go Wrong?

Oil tanker trainToday's Wall Street Journal features a story called "Boom Time on the Tracks: Rail Capacity, Spending Soar." The efficiencies inherent in rail transport--in which a gallon of fuel can move one ton of freight 500 miles--are apparently leading to lots of new spending and traffic for the nation's railroads:

On a recent subzero day at a rail station here on the plains, a giant tank train stretches like a black belt across the horizon—as far as the eye can see. Soon it will be filled to the brim with light, sweet crude oil and headed to a refinery on Puget Sound. Another mile-long train will pull in right behind it, and another after that. . . Welcome to the revival of the Railroad Age.

As the lead implies, oil is a major factor in this rail renaissance:

In the U.S. oil boom, rail's new attitude has made it both a preferred mode of transport—and also an instrument of arbitrage. When oil began flowing in North Dakota, BNSF was perfectly situated. Its Burlington Northern Line from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Puget Sound cuts diagonally northwest through 16 of the 19 top oil-producing counties in North Dakota, then parallels the Canadian border through five of the six top-producing oil counties in Montana. Until several years ago, though, it was mostly a high-speed route for loads like lumber from the Northwest and grain from the Great Plains.

If you're guessing where this is headed, you're probably guessing right. This morning, 14 cars of a Canadian Pacific train hauling crude oil derailed in Minnesota, spilling 30,000 gallons of oil.  

Moving oil by rail in Canada and the United States has increased rapidly in the last two years as domestic crude production has grown faster than pipeline capacity.

Environmental concerns have delayed the production of pipelines like TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL, but some experts have argued moving crude by rail poses a larger risk of accidents and spills.

Here's a foolproof safety tip from Sierra Daily: Just leave it in the ground.

Photo by Gudella/iStock

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

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