Last week's oil train derailment in West Virginia launched a national conversation about the safety of shipping oil by rail. It's a topic we've been hearing about over the past couple years, especially here in Minnesota, where Bakken oil crisscrosses the state's rail lines in large volume.
It's a complex topic combining federal policy with scientific questions. The Wall Street Journal's Russell Gold has been following the issue closely and spoke to MPR News' Tom Weber to explain what you need to know.
7 things you should know about oil transport by rail
1. The most misunderstood part of crude oil transport by train: It's very explosive.
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"The kind of oil that's being taken out of the ground in North Dakota and put into these tanker cars is a much lighter oil," Gold said. "It is a very gassy oil; it has a lot of ethanes, and butanes and propanes dissolved in it. It really does explode and that's really what's causing the problems."
When a set of tanker cars goes up in flames, it can cause 20-story-tall fireballs.
Footage from the West Virigina derailment last week:
2. The amount of crude oil carried by train has increased exponentially in less than a decade.
According to the American Association of Railroads, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude in 2008. Last year is was 400,000.
We've been moving small amounts of crude by rail for years, but it was one or two cars in long train, Gold said. Now we see 100 to 120 tanker cars all filled with crude oil. That's 70,000 barrels of crude per train, he said.
3. Once the crude oil is extracted in North Dakota, it has to be transported to the country's major refineries on the coasts.
Refineries are built to utilize the gases removed from the product. If it was stabilized near the extraction site, North Dakota would have to find a way to use or dispose of the ethane and propane gases that make the oil explosive.
4. Railroads have become "virtual pipelines" for oil.
From a Gold WSJ article:
While these virtual pipelines can be created in months, traditional pipelines have become increasingly difficult to install as environmental groups seek to block permits for new energy infrastructure.
"What we are seeing on rail is largely due to opposition to and uncertainty around building pipelines," said Brigham McCown, who was the chief pipeline regulator under President George W. Bush . Pipelines, he adds, are far safer than trains.
5. Pipeline leaks and spills are environmental problems. Oil train derailments are public safety issues.
When you have a tank car that derails and starts losing it's very gassy oil, it's going to burst into fire rather than leak into waterways, Gold said.
6. If you live close to these rail lines, get in touch with local first responders.
Gold recommends checking with emergency responders nearby and ask if they are properly trained to handle a crude oil train derailment. Make sure your fire chief is in contact with the rail companies to know when major shipments come through your area. Push for decreasing train speed limits and increased track inspection.
7. Can we make the tanker cars safer? Gold gave us the latest:
MPR News Producer Brigitta Greene contributed to this report.