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Keep Shale Booming
The Opaque Dangers of Oil-by-Rail

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.

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  • Andrew Allison

    No mention of the Administration’s latest delaying tactic. Isn’t it obvious that the objective is to avoid aggravating the, largely Democrat, enviro-nazis until after the mid-term election. Color me disgusted.

    • mgoodfel

      If they actually approve it after the election, I’ll be surprised. That would look pretty cynical and really enrage the base.

      • Corlyss

        This administration fairly oozes deep cynicism and there is no tactic they will deem too corrosively opportunistic to deploy against Republicans. Last week it was racism, with the Divider-in-chief, his toady AG, and some otherwise undistinguished congressional lowlife all claiming that 1) no president & AG have suffered like unto the current occupants who are martyrs for their race; and 2) it’s all the doings of the minority party! And naturally these profound ly destructive blood libels go unremarked on by the corrupt media that literally and figuratively cheer from the sidelines while pretending to be objective. The week before it was the patent lie about gender inequality in pay, a lie so obviously false that even the hometown propaganda rag WAPO felt constrained to denounce it.

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  • Winston Smith

    Sure … lets build pipelines.

    And when the oil field runs out we can just move the pipelines to the next oil field discovery. Well, if not, the pipelines can be used to move other things … right?

    oopss … I forgot … railroads can move lots of other things.

    Pipelines can pretty much be used only to move hydrocarbon
    stuff. Oil. Coal slurry. Bitumen. One way only. To the refinery.

    So how does all that stuff the oil industry needs on site gets move to there? Can you ship sand back through the pipeline? How about the steel used to construct the drilling scaffolds? And the drilling equipment itself? And can you ship the Human Beings needed to run all that stuff back through the pipelines?


    Use the railroads. By all means enforce the safety regulations vigorously. Force the use of better railroad crude cars.

    Railroads are multipurpose transportation entities. Pipelines are not.

    No … I don’t work for a railroad. Just a life-long train buff :-}

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