Oil Train Accidents Skyrocketing

Report highlights economic, human costs of restricting pipeline transportation

A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D.
A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. / AP

The number of accidents involving trains carrying crude oil, and the severity of those accidents, has skyrocketed as U.S. oil production takes off, highlighting the economic and human costs of restricting pipeline transportation capacity, Politico reported on Wednesday.

"This year has already shattered the record for property damage from U.S. oil-train accidents, with a toll exceeding $10 million through mid-May—nearly triple the damage for all of 2013," Politico reported. "The number of incidents so far this year—70—is also on pace to set a record."

The statistics come as the Obama administration continues to put off a decision on the popular Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from drilling operations in Canada and northwestern U.S. shale formations to refineries and export terminals on the Gulf Coast.

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Even members of the administration admit that pipeline transportation is far safer than transportation by rail, Politico noted.

Even [Keystone company] TransCanada might start using rail to ship oil to the U.S. while waiting for Keystone to get the green light, CEO Russ Girling said in an interview in May—despite agreeing that trains are a costlier and potentially more dangerous option.

"If anybody thinks that is a better idea, that’s delusional," Girling said.

In fact, the State Department estimated this month that because of the risks of rail compared with pipelines, an additional 189 injuries and 28 deaths would occur every year if trains end up carrying the oil intended for Keystone.

Environmentalists often claim that no method of oil transportation is completely safe, and hence Keystone is not an acceptable alternative to more dangerous rail transit.

However, the Canadian government on Tuesday approved a pipeline that will carry crude oil to the country’s west coast, where it will be exported to Asia, suggesting that Canadian "oil sands" crude will be extracted, transported, refined, and burned regardless of whether the Keystone pipeline is approved.

That has long been the position of the State Department, which found in a recent environmental assessment that a failure to approve Keystone would not "significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States."