America is in the middle of an oil and gas boom, and it’s pumping out hydrocarbons faster than it can build out infrastructure to transport them to markets. This has put a new strain on America’s extensive rail networks, which have been bringing crude from new fields in remote places like North Dakota’s Bakken formation to refineries, sometimes as far away as the Gulf Coast. With more freight cars comes more accidents. Train crashes are already destructive enough to warrant their own idiom, but when oil is involved, the risks to health and environment are compounded. Complicating the matter further, the crude being transported is of a particularly explosive variety.To help minimize risk, railroads are required to send hazardous materials—like crude oil—along the safest routes possible. But as the NYT reports, there’s very little oversight to this process:
American railroads have long operated under federal laws that shield them from local or state oversight and provide a blanket of secrecy over much of their operations. But now a rapid rise in the number of trains carrying crude oil — along with a series of derailments and explosions — has brought new concern about the risks of transporting dangerous cargo by rail.
To determine the safest route, rail operators rely on a program called the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, which uses algorithms to rank the safety of routes, determined by distance, as well as by the number of intersections with roads and high-profile and high-density buildings. But there’s a problem with this system:
The software, partly financed by the federal government, considers safety requirements as well as security factors such as the threat of terrorism, according to Robert E. Fronczak, assistant vice president for environment and hazardous materials at the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group.But the system provides little transparency, and outsiders cannot find out why a particular route is favored, for instance. Railroads do not provide any information on their route selection, citing safety concerns.
Communities along these rail lines are understandably concerned about the rise in oil-by-rail, and this lack of transparency can make the process seem almost insidious. Of course, there is an alternative: build out our nation’s already extensive oil pipeline network. Pipelines are ultimately the most efficient way to bring hydrocarbons from large fields to large refineries, and they’re also safer than transporting crude by rail or truck.As the shale revolution continues to yield millions of barrels of tight oil, it makes sense from both cost and safety perspectives to expand and extend our pipelines. That includes the Keystone XL pipeline.