The Long Chain of Responsibility Behind an Oily and Deadly Train Wreck

An aerial photograph of the deadly fire in Lac Megantic, a town in Quebec, caused by the derailment of a train carrying oil from North Dakota to a New Brunswick refinery.

Around the smoldering, oil-soaked crater in the heart of Lac-Mégantic, a small Quebec town where an unmanned train with 72 tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded early on Saturday, killing at least 13 people*, the search for victims and causes is still on.

Attention will soon focus on some misstep by a train crewman or maintenance worker or the like. But the chain of responsibility goes much further. While investigations proceed, here’s some context to mull.

In case you missed it, the oil was being carried from America’s new oil patch, the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota, to a St. John, New Brunswick, refinery that, according to the owner, Irving Energy, sends more than half of its 300,000 daily barrels of petroleum products back across the border to the northeastern United States.

As I wrote during the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, as long as we depend heavily on oil, we all “own” a portion of every disaster related to oil extraction, transport or use.

An important article in the Montreal Gazette notes that even as Canada’s conservative leader Stephen Harper conveyed his grief about the calamity, the government was deeply cutting the budget of the agency responsible for safeguarding train transport:

At a time when train shipments of crude oil are expected to skyrocket in Canada, the federal government is cutting funding for Transport Canada, the country’s transportation regulator, by almost 30 per cent, down to $1.5 billion, according to government spending estimates for 2012-13 and 2013-14.
One would hope that, in the face of this tragedy, that gutting of those budgets will end. (Canada is hardly alone in cutting budgets for important government agencies.)

Until long-term shifts in relevant policies — like stricter vehicle efficiency standards — more deeply curtail oil demand in the United States, the lack of pipeline capacity will continue to increase train transport of fuel from North American oil fields. As always, tradeoffs result.

The rising pressure for rail shipments was explored in depth earlier this year in “Busting Bottlenecks in the Bakken,” an article in Fed Gazette, a publication of the Minnesota Federal Reserve (yes, weird, but it’s a thorough, interesting piece) and in this Christian Science Monitor story: “Pipelines can’t keep up with North American oil boom.”

A helpful Bloomberg article today, “Quebec Disaster Spurs Rail-Versus-Pipelines Debate on Oil,” digs in on the relative merits of pipeline and train transport of oil. But a quote in Ian Austen’s story in The Times best conveys how the data on pipeline or rail safety can be interpreted differently depending on one’s worldview:

Edward Whittingham, the executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental group based in Calgary, Alberta, said there was not conclusive research weighing the safety of the two shipment methods.

“The best data I’ve seen indicates,” he said, “depending on your perspective, both are pretty much as safe as each other, or both are equally unsafe. There’s safety and environmental risks inherent in either approach.”
At Grist, John Upton offers an overheated analogy in rejecting debates about which transportation method is safer:

[T]he comparison obfuscates an obvious reality: The oil can’t be moved safely at all. (Same goes for natural gas.)

After a string of pipeline and rail accidents in recent years, it’s clear that letting the energy industry move incendiary bulk fluids around the continent is like tossing a book of matches into the crib to keep little Johnny happy while his folks stare at the television. And that’s without even considering the climate impacts of the fossil-fuel mining binge, or the many hazards of fracking.
Of course, this description leaves out that it is consumer demand for petroleum products that is driving the shipments. It’s nice to wish that the United States could magically go cold turkey on oil and other fuels overnight and simply stop all of those trains and shut down those pipelines.

But in the real world, the transition to new energy sources will take a very long time. That means choosing among a suite of imperfect options is unavoidable. My view is that, with strengthened standards and oversight, pipelines win out over rail for moving oil or related products.

But it’s also vital that any push on expanding pipelines, or oil (or gas) extraction, has to be accompanied by a lockstep push on reducing demand and environmental impacts.

This is why President Obama needs to be sure he articulates a cogent overarching energy policy to accompany his relatively meaningless “all of the above” energy mantra.

Needless to say, the same is true for Canada and its leaders, as was effectively described in a piece by Peter Tertzakian in The Globe & Mail today:

Canada is one of the largest producers of primary energy resources. We have world scale reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, hydroelectric power, wood and other renewable sources too.

Yet despite our global energy stature, we have a sad lack of cohesive, pro-active thinking about how we should be producing, consuming and trading all our valuable energy resources, not just oil. Lac-Mégantic is a most unfortunate metaphor: how we think about energy is like a train without a conductor.
5:29 p.m. | Postscript | A report released by the International Energy Agency in May has a section on transport risks that is highly relevant (seen via the FuelFix blog):

“Increasing volumes of crude oil transported by rail raise questions of safety,” the IEA said in its medium-term oil market report. [link] “Our analysis reveals that compared to pipelines, rail incident rates are higher while the opposite holds for spill rates.”

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