Oil on Trains

Published
American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

The Department of Transportation is taking steps to address concerns about the safety of transporting oil by rail. The concern is fueled by several severe accidents in 2012 that caused deaths and damage as rail cars carrying oil, especially Bakken oil that seems to be especially volatile, exploded or burned. Recent information about the large number of oil cars that move through highly populated areas has raised additional concerns.

In mid-2013 the industry adopted voluntary actions to improve oil train safety, reducing train speeds to 40 mph in major cities, increasing track inspections and improving emergency response planning. Unsafe tank car designs were not addressed. Many groups considered the voluntary efforts inadequate.

This week, on July 23, the Obama Administration announced new rules on shipping flammable liquids including oil and ethanol. The proposed rules include mandates for phasing out older, less-sturdy rail tank cars, tightened speed limits and measures to address concerns that crude oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken region is unusually volatile or flammable–proposed rules will require testing for oil and other volatile liquids.

Railroads are concerned that the reduced speeds could cause gridlock and shippers are concerned that they may be unable to ship as much oil as they wish.

Background Statistics:
  • The Association of American Railroads reports that 407,761 carloads of oil originated in the U.S. in 2013, up from 9,500 carloads in 2008. The Association estimates that equates to 800,000 barrels per day moving by rail. For comparison, the U.S. produced an average of 7.4 million barrels per day in 2013.
  • More than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. This compares to about 800,000 gallons spilled over the prior 37 years, 1975-2012.
  • Congressional Research Service (2014) found that pipeline spills released almost five times as much oil per ton transported per mile than rail (2002-2007 data, the most recent available). It is worth noting that the volumes for pipeline and rail are both low: about 110 barrels per billion-ton-miles for pipelines and less than 40 barrels per billion-tom-miles for rail. The Association of American Railroads reports a statistic that may be easier to understand: for the period 2002 to 2012, railroads spilled 0.38 and pipelines spilled 0.88 gallons per million barrel miles transported.

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