Oil Change International

Exposing the true costs of fossil fuels

How many explosions before we stop crude-by-rail?

This past Saturday, it happened again. A train carrying highly volatile crude oil, in this case tar sands crude from Alberta, derailed in Ontario and caught fire, damaging a bridge in the blaze. This is the fourth time in as many weeks an oil train has derailed and caught fire or exploded.

That’s right, there have been FOUR oil train derailments in North America over the past month. Here’s what that looks like:

rail-blog v1

There’s clear outrage at the local level, but, so far, political action in Washington has been nearly nonexistent. Worse, some recent reports suggest the Obama administration ‘balked’ at dealing with the problem when considering it last year.

Government Inaction

The White House is the responsible party here and it’s time this issue be given the level of attention it deserves by President Obama. It has been 20 months since the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, but the President seems content pushing paper around while meeting with industry representatives.

As recently as last week dozens of industry representatives met with White House officials downplaying the need for strict safety regulations while an oil train in Illinois was still burning.

As it stands, draft safety standards put forth by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a part of the Department of Transportation, are awaiting final approval by the Obama Administration.

These new rules are a potentially important step, but the recent accidents make it clear even upgraded safety won’t be enough. All four accidents happened with “safer” oil tank cars, not the DOT-111 tankers widely known to be dangerous — and there are no reports any of the trains were going above the speed limit.

President Obama should adopt the strictest possible safety standards, but, at the end of the day, the only safe place for this oil is in the ground — we simply can’t afford to burn it for climate reasons and there’s no good way to transport it.

These Were No Minor Accidents

Let’s take a look at the recent derailments and why this past month demands more of a public response from Washington than it has received thus far:

  1. February 14, Ontario #1:
    • The train was going within the speed limit
    • The train was hauling newer model tank cars (CPC-1232s)
    • The train was carrying tar sands crude
    • The resulting fire destroyed 900 feet of track and burned for 6 days
  2. February 16, West Virginia:
    • The train was going within the speed limit
    • The train was hauling newer model tank cars (CPC-1232s)
    • The train was carrying Bakken oil
    • There were multiple massive explosions
    • The fires burned for days
    • Hundreds of families were evacuated and one person nearly lost his life
  3. March 5, Illinois:
    • The train was going within the speed limit
    • The train was hauling newer model tank cars (CPC-1232s)
    • The train was carrying Bakken oil
    • The fire burned for days
    • Firefighters could only access the derailment site by a bike path
  4. March 7, Ontario #2:
    • The train was going within the speed limit
    • The train was hauling newer model tank cars (CPC-1232s)
    • The train was carrying tar sands crude
    • Canadian National Railway Co. is building a new 1,500ft track of railroad around the burning train wreckage. Seriously.

It is clear from this most recent spate of accidents that neither “safer” tank cars or the current speed limits are limiting the threat crude-by-rail poses to our communities. But that wasn’t the only lesson to be taken from these derailments. The other, just as significant, is that transporting tar sands isn’t necessarily safer than transporting Bakken crude — which we explain in detail in our recent blog post.

Up until now it had been widely believed that tar sands crude wasn’t as explosive or combustible as the oil coming from the Bakken region in North Dakota. The recent accidents have blown this assumption to pieces.

The New Normal?

If the oil industry gets its way, accidents like these will become the new normal. The Department of Transportation itself has found that crude oil trains are likely to derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades — and that’s a conservative estimate made with old data. This would cause more than $4 billion in damage and possibly kill HUNDREDS.

This is a government agency saying hundreds of people might die in fiery explosions because of the greed of a few private corporations, yet there has been little action taken to slow or stop the oil industry’s efforts.

Communities Take A Stand

While exploding oil trains are a frightening proposition, none of this should suggest pipelines are any better. Choosing between one or the other, as many oil insiders have suggested is necessary, is like choosing to get hit by a bus or a truck.

What’s needed is an urgent and rapid transition to renewable energy that doesn’t devastate the landscape, trample on indigenous and community rights, or cook the planet. Put simply: we need to keep the oil in the ground.

That’s the message President Obama needs to hear. While he considers the best course of action on the proposed PHMSA rules, it’s important for him to know that communities all over the country are rising up and taking a stand.

In some places they’re already winning, blocking oil terminals and getting in the way of proposed expansions.

Near Seattle, local organizers won a victory over Shell, which wants to build an oil train terminal to supply its Anacortes refinery. Shell’s plans now require a full-blown environmental review. And in California, communities are standing in the way of terminal expansions across the state.

Even Governors, like Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf, are asking the federal government for stronger oil train safety standards.

Our message is simple. If transporting oil can’t be done safely, don’t do it. Keep it in the ground. It’s time for President Obama to take this issue seriously and put in place a moratorium on all crude-by-rail shipments until community and climate safety can be guaranteed.

Derailments like the four over the past month are what an “All of the Above” energy strategy looks like and we’re not going to take it.


Update: While writing this article, another oil train derailed in Manitoba. Information is still coming out about this latest accident, though it appears to be smaller in scale. Still, that makes FIVE derailments involving trains carrying crude oil or refined oil products in under a month.


Take Action: Send your message to President Obama calling for a moratorium on crude-by-rail until safety is guaranteed.

Comments (8)

  1. Gordon Wood Art & Design says:

    So, WHEN will this insanity stop!?!? This is beyond the point of ridiculous, this is absolutely stupid! And what is all that burning oil putting up and out into the air, the environment? There must be penalties for these miss-haps and negligence, more accountability NOW. This morning I was reading Wendell Berry’s “The Way of Ignorance”, and boy do these “oil trains” fit right in… Sad and pathetic that WE can’t do better than this!!!

  2. Dear President Obama,
    I live in Benicia, CA, home of Valero’s northern CAL refinery. Valero proposes a crude-by-rail project that if adopted now would daily add incredible risks to communities and precious lands and waters from Alberta Canada and/or North Dakota all the way to California to our town, threatening explosions, fires and spills owing to the transport of flammable crudes (Bakken and tar sands dilbits) in inherently UNSAFE TANK CARS, including DOT 1232s that have proven their vulnerability to puncture and explosion during derailments. DOT’s proposed rule-making won’t fix this problem for CBR projects like Valero’s now under review. Your duty is to ensure protection for people and the environment against such enormous threats as posed over the last two years with increasing shipments by rail of dangerous dirty crudes across the country and in Canada. Please place a moratorium on all crude-by-rail shipments until community and climate safety can be guaranteed.
    Thank you,
    Marilyn Bardet
    member, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community
    Benicia, CA 94510

  3. Dr. Claire Closmann says:

    Dear President Obama,
    please place a moratorium on transportation of crude oil by railroad. Five dangerous and extremely harmful accidents in one month is far too many for our nation to live with.

    Claire Closmann
    Austin, Texas

  4. Holly Hallman says:

    This just has to stop! they predicted 10 a year and we had 5 in a month!

  5. Jan Woodruff says:

    Mr. President:
    Please protect citizens’ inalienable rights to life as well as healthy air, water, land, and ecosystem services. Issue a moratorium on oil-by-rail until the public-safety and environmental health issues are resolved. Citizens’ rights are being infringed by the richest multinational corporations in the world. Won’t you do the right thing?

    Jan Woodruff
    Anacortes, WA

  6. Seudónimo Tercero-Costa says:

    Thank you for your coverage. Thank you for the MAP! Is there a function to find all crude rail incidents?

    Every point of print here @ the fifth estate serves our growing concerns—namely, SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER. A moratorium on crude by rail serves to hasten alternatives — such as the oft overlooked ‘Line 61’s expansion through my stomping grounds.

    This is not to say that I am all for Bomb Trains – a river runs beside them here too. I live in Southeastern Wisconsin. Two doors from my home frack-sands and coal rule the rails. Trains have quadrupled in length over the past nine months and they now run an average of twelve times daily, up from three for the past ten years that I have lived here. No dough they may one day carry crude, arms, refugees.

    All over my state, a bellwether of organic standards and stewardship, precious farmlands is being devoured by our thirst for more of all insandities. Wendell Berry weeps and Michael Ruppert rolls—perhaps Aldo and Abe just laugh – we have crossed the Rubicon — there is no return, from here we mealy to mightily slog-on towards Collapse.

    Seudónimo Tercero-Costa

    The Indians of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Valleys to their new white acquaintances –”May I not hope you soon to depart?”

    “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”
    Harold Pinter 1958

  7. gregg mcphedrain says:

    how many times will liberals whine
    don’t bring oil this way
    ban pipelines
    but I need gas cheap my iphone charged NOW
    gimme gimme gimme but don’t break a blade of grass
    make up your damned minds

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