By: Rob Port
Between the Christmas and New Year holidays North Dakota got a wake-up call. Two trains, one carrying crude oil from the Bakken oil fields, collided near Casselton resulting in massive explosions and mushroom clouds.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but the potential for tragedy was there. If the derailment had happened in Casselton, instead of outside it, or in near-by Fargo there almost certainly would have been a body count.
There was a body count in Quebec earlier this year when a train carrying Bakken oil derailed with the same sort of fiery consequences, except in Canada the explosions happened in a small town and killed 47 people.
According to numbers from the American Association of Railroads, nationally oil-by-rail shipments increased 44% from 2012 to 2013. In North Dakota specifically the increase has been much more dramatic, with oil-by-rail capacity increasing 2,873% since 2008 according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.
North Dakota’s rail system, which runs through every single city in the state, is busier now than perhaps at any time in its history. And the risk for deadly derailments increases with the traffic.
This makes on-going political opposition to the build-out of pipeline infrastructure harder to understand.
Consider two major pipeline projects that are currently being obstructed by political interests. One is the Keystone XL pipeline expansion which would take an estimated 100,000 barrels per day (roughly 10% of the Bakken’s current production). Those in favor of building the pipeline have been in a high-profile battle with the Obama administration to get approval to build it for years now. North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp campaigned on her support for the project, but has been much more quiet about that support since reaching Washington DC (unlike her colleague, Senator John Hoeven).
Another is the Sandpiper pipeline, which would run across North Dakota and Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin, taking with it an estimated 225,000 barrels per day of oil. The North Dakota Public Service Commission has just announced a slate of public hearings as a part of their approval process for the line, but it faces heavy opposition from left-wing activists in Minnesota.
These two projects alone could potentially take a third of North Dakota’s oil production off the roads, and off the rails. That means less traffic, smaller and less frequent trains, and fewer chances for catastrophic highway/rail accidents.
To be fair to railroads, derailments are rare when put in the context of the amount of oil being shipped. According, again, to the Association of American Railroads, 99.9977% of rail hazmat shipments, which includes crude oil, reach their destination without a spill.
And pipelines aren’t perfect either. They spill more often than trains derail, with more oil being released on average when they do. Though, it should be noted, the vast majority of spills happen at pipeline junction points, where oil is put in or taken out of the pipeline, where such spills are both expected and prepared for. Meaning those spills have a negligible impact on the environment.
Plus, one thing pipelines never do is derail. Unlike railroads, which run through population centers, pipelines run mostly through empty countryside avoiding cities altogether. And leaking oil, while a potential hazard to the environment, is less deadly than a train off its rails.
Pipelines are, without a doubt, a much safer method for transporting oil. Those obstructing pipelines have their reasons for doing so (mostly, it seems having to do with shutting down the use of fossil fuels altogether), but we should be clear that their opposition comes with consequences that are often deadly.