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Oil Spills On Railroad Tracks

Thursday, March 28, 2013 8:16
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As energy companies have turned to trains to move crude fromNorth American oil fields not adequately served by pipelines, railroad-related incidents have risen sharply in the past few years, according to federal data. From 2010 to 2012, 112 oil spills were reported from U.S. rail tanker cars, up from just 10 in the previous three years, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a part of the Department of Transportation that tracks most releases of hazardous materials.

Pipelines carry much more crude than trains and have fewer leaks per mile, though failures can be serious. In 2010, for example, an Exxon Mobil Corporation pipeline spilled 1,500 barrels of oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River in an hour. The possibility of oil spills from derailments is only beginning to be on the public’s radar.

Energy companies typically foot the cleanup bills. The railroad industry says the amount of oil spilled is tiny compared to the volume of oil transported by the U.S. rail system, which has surged from 9,500 carloads in 2008, the year widely seen as the beginning of the current oil boom, to 233,811 carloads in 2012, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Derailments, which are typically the cause of the largest rail spills, are down significantly in recent decades as railroads have beefed up monitoring the condition of equipment and the integrity of rail lines, according to BNSF Railway, which has become the largest shipper of crude via rail. In addition to regularly inspecting cars for leaks, BNSF also employs its own hazardous-materials response teams.

From 2008 to 2012, daily U.S. oil production has grown to an average of 6.5 million barrels, its highest level in more than 15 years, according to the Energy Information Administration. It is expected to grow to 7.3 million barrels a day this year and to 7.9 million barrels in 2014.

The surge comes thanks to a combination of technologies—horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves pumping water, chemicals and sand down wells to break up rock formations. The increased production, much of which has occurred in remote areas of North Dakota and South Texas, has outpaced the ability of companies to build new pipelines or expand existing ones to move the oil to refineries.

Historically, railways have spilled more oil on a gallons-per-mile basis than pipelines, according to several studies. One 2009 analysis of oil spills between 1980 and 2003 done for the American Petroleum Institute by Environmental Research Consulting found 80 out of every 1 billion gallons transported via rail spilled, compared to 38 out of every 1 billion gallons transported via pipeline. (WSJ, 3/27/2013)


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