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Pipeline Politics
The Dangers of Oil by Rail

As President Obama readies his veto pen for a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline, the primary alternative to the controversial infrastructure project is sending trains laden with volatile crude through cities and small towns across the country. Despite having access to the world’s most extensive pipeline network, producers have had to turn to trains to transport booming crude output to refineries. But as we saw last week in West Virginia, more oil trains means more fiery derailments. Reuters reports:

In line with a federal protocol established last year following a string of fiery derailments across North America, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management on Tuesday informed 16 counties and cities that oil trains could be coming through their towns, local officials and fire departments said, one day after the Mount Carbon derailment. Those counties passed the information on to local emergency responders. […]

That this is happening with little fanfare in Pembroke and potentially hundreds of other cities and towns along this track stretching as far as Ohio, highlights how ubiquitous oil trains have become in the United States, where crude-by-rail is an essential, yet sometimes explosive, fix for an overwhelmed pipeline network.

Obama’s veto is expected to come sometime this week, and while it won’t sound a death knell for Keystone, it will at the very least further delay its construction. The longer that happens, the more oil rides our nation’s railroads, often through more densely populated locations than it would via the proposed pipeline. Surely that’s worth taking into consideration, right?

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  • Andrew Allison
  • Dave Boz

    “Surely that’s worth taking into consideration, right?”
    Perhaps, if your goal is “safe oil.” But not if your goal is “no oil.”

    • Andrew Allison

      The (mal)Administration’s is simply pandering to Green voters. IMO, the President doesn’t give a rat’s rear end about environmental issues, just about securing votes for the left. This is a recording: I despise both major parties more-or-less equally but, based upon what I observe, tilt slightly to the right..

  • Alex K.

    Railways are not supposed to handle large amounts of crude, especially light, condensate-like crude like some of Bakken output. A subsidiary issue is whether regulators should require Bakken producers to remove a greater share of volatile hydrocarbons from the crude before it gets into rail tanks or a pipeline. If I may insert a shameless self-plug here, I’ve blogged about the risks; note the comment by Oilfield Expat.

    There must be something wrong with a regulatory regime that allows high-risk railway shipments of crude because they are using existing infrastructure but selectively blocks new pipelines. Somehow Keystone phases 1, 2, 3a and 3b got approved under Bush II and Obama; it’s only Keystone 4, or XL, that Obama is holding back.

    • Corlyss

      “Railways are not supposed to handle large amounts of crude,”
      That was the way Rockefeller moved his oil until Morgan tried to extort him and Rockefeller conceived the idea of a pipeline.

      • Alex K.

        The idea of a pipeline and the first working pipeline (1865) predate Rockefeller’s struggle with railroads. At first, pipelines competed with horse-drawn barrel carts. But Rockefeller bet on the right thing, as did the brothers Nobel with the help of Shukhov and other engineers in the Baku area, the other major oil-producing region from the 1870s to 1917.

        There is also a great difference in volumes between then and now. In 1900, US crude output was 174,000 bpd. In December 2014, the Bakken in North Dakota alone produced at 1,163,352 bpd.

  • Corlyss

    Ideology stands ready to sacrifice everyone else and their property to the goal.

  • FriendlyGoat

    How would the upper Keystone (the part not already built north of Kansas) keep oil off of trains in Virginia and West Virginia? I do understand how more oil on more trains going south from Canada and North Dakota are potentially more dangerous than the Keystone, but the Keystone is not going to run just “everywhere” and these oil trains are all over the place.

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