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Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC)

Questioning Safety and Credibility

Questioning Safety and Credibility: Crude Oil Transport

Rail lines transporting crude oil slice through almost every state in the nation. Affected communities have voiced environmental and safety concerns about the dramatic increase in train traffic carrying crude oil. Despite the concerns, crude oil trains keep rolling with little more than vague statements of reassurance from the oil companies and rail lines. 

Are the environmental and safety concerns valid? What is being done to address the concerns?


Crude oil comes with risks, no matter how it is carried

Crude oil is a volatile organic liquid. Bakken crude oil may be more dangerous than conventional crude because it is lighter and contains higher concentrations of gases like hydrogen sulfide (due to “souring”), which can make it more corrosive and volatile. This raises safety concerns for transporting Bakken crude oil by train. Unit trains, consisting of 50 to 120 or more cars carrying a single commodity, further elevate the risks of transporting crude oil by rail.

As more transloading facilities are proposed throughout the United States, rail companies have touted their safety records. However, Rachel Maddow’s show highlighted the fact that derailments and inadequate tank car design have been ongoing issues for decades. Plus, the rail companies’ numbers reflect historic use of the rail system. With the dramatic increase in the number of trains carrying crude oil, recent events illustrate a very different safety record for the rail lines: 

  • On July 5, 2013, a crude oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec tragically took 47 lives.
  • In October of 2013 a crude oil train derailment in Alberta, Canada, forced the evacuation of more than 40 people.
  • In November of 2013, 25 train cars carrying crude oil derailed in Aliceville, Alabama.
  • On December 30, 2013, a crude oil train struck a derailed grain train outside of Casselton, North Dakota causing a massive explosion.
  • January 7, 2014 derailment and fire in New Brunswick, Canada.
  • On February 3, 2014, crude oil leaked from a tank car for over 70 miles of track in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
  • Little more than a week later, on February 13, 2014, a crude oil train derailed in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania.
  • A derailment in Lynchburg, Virgnia on April 30, 2014 caused a massive fire and spilled crude oil into the James River, a source of drinking water for communities in the region.
  • On May 9, 2014, a derailment in LaSalle, Colorado spilled 6,500 gallons of crude oil.

Sightline’s interactive map provides an even better overview of the recent train derailments in the United States between June 2011 and December 2013. A report published by Oil Change International breaks down, in detail, the various transloading terminals and the rise of crude-by-rail.

Transporting crude oil by pipeline also carries risks. Tesoro spilled more than 20,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil from its pipeline into a North Dakota wheat field in October of 2013. The pipeline was carrying the crude oil to a transloading facility, where it would be loaded onto trains. The spill, and Tesoro’s delay in responding (see also article on Tesoro’s “smart pig” that detected anomalies in the pipeline), calls into question Tesoro’s and Savage’s “not one drop” policy, a message that the companies had advocated before the Port of Vancouver in support of signing a lease for a crude oil transport terminal along the Columbia River.

Once it arrives at a port, if there is no refinery at that location, the crude oil is transloaded from rail car or pipeline to marine vessel, and then shipped to a refinery. The risk of spill likewise applies to the marine vessels carrying crude oil. For example, 31,500 gallons of light crude oil spilled into the Mississippi River on February 22, 2014, after a tank barge pushed by a towboat collided with another towboat near New Orleans.

What is being done to address the safety risks?

In January of this year, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued various recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to address the safety risk of transporting crude oil by rail and by pipeline. The recommendations were made in coordination with Canada’s Transportation Safety Board. Regarding rail lines, the agencies recommended that the DOT:

  1. Expand hazardous materials route planning and selection requirements for railroads to include key trains transporting flammable liquids, and where technically feasible require rerouting to avoid populated and other sensitive areas;
  2. Develop a program to audit response plans for rail carriers of petroleum products; and
  3. Audit shippers and rail carriers of crude oil to ensure they are using the proper hazardous materials shipping classifications, have transportation and security plans, and are adequately providing for safety and security.

Although helpful in highlighting the fact that transporting crude oil by rail carries inherent safety risks, these recommendations are simply that; the DOT is under no obligation to adopt the proposed standards as rules.

In 2011, the American Railroads Tank Car Committee of the Association of AmericanRailroads (AAR) developednew standards for tank cars transporting crude oil and ethanol, applicable only to tank cars ordered after October 1, 2011. Use of the newly designed tank cars is purely voluntary. Tesoro has stated that it will use the safest tank cars. Global Partners, owner of the crude oil transloading facility at Port Westward in Clatskanie, Oregon, has made similar statements

Yet given the high demand for newer, safer cars, and the increased transport of crude by rail nationally, there is a backlog on the new tank cars. Thus despite even the best intentions, rail and oil companies will not be able to get their hands on the newer car versions for at least 3 more years. Plus, the AAR recently denounced its 2011 position and advocated before a Senate subcommittee hearing for even safer standards than the voluntary standards it had proposed in 2011.

In May of 2014, the Federal Railroad Administration ordered railroad companies to disclose to states the details about shipments of volatile crude oil. In turn, the railroad companies have asked states to sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent public disclosure of this information. Some states, including Wisconsin, Montana, Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington, are taking independent action to provide greater safety assurances to their citizens by refusing to sign the non-disclosure agreements. The information is critical to the preparedness of emergency first responders.

UPDATE: In Washington, lawmakers are working on a bill that would require oil handling facilities to disclose the volume and type of crude oil received monthly to Ecology and would apply an oil spill tax to rail shipments of crude oil to provide funding for training emergency first responders. Community members remained skeptical of the limited safety measures included in the bill, as apparent by testimony at a public hearing in Spokane on June 17th. For those in attendance, including the Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich, the so-called public hearing was more of a political media blitz to promote Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen, and failed to provide a meaningful discussion about how to address the safety risks of crude oil trains passing through Spokane.

The concerns over environmental and safety risks when transporting crude oil are valid. Yet citizens will have to wait as federal regulators take their time implementing more stringent regulations to ensure safety on the rail lines. Given that many of the derailments are due in part to human error, it is questionable whether an adequate level of safety can ever actually be achieved through more stringent safety measures.