Did you know one of our country's biggest oil pipelines runs right through the middle of North East? You've heard of the long delayed Keystone XL pipeline, but we've got a big one already in place, you could call it the North East XL pipeline. It's made out of multiple oil trains about a mile long, running through North East every day with nothing but oil filled tank cars from end to end.
It's a big pipeline
Oil, recovered from the Bakken Shale deposits in North Dakota, needs a way to get to market and it will not sit still because a pipeline isn't built, it's just going to move by other means. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks that run through North East, are part of the busiest oil carrying lines in the nation, running from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, on their way to refineries in the eastern US, and the oil traffic has dramatically increased, something you may have noticed.
Norfolk Southern and CSX, which serve the East Coast, moved 53,001 carloads of oil in the three months ended September, compared with just seven carloads during the same period of 2009, according to data from the federal Surface Transportation Board.
What's the issue?
Our whole economy, certainly the majority of our transportation system, runs on oil and its byproducts and the huge increase in supply, brought about by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, is doing some great things, like pushing gasoline prices down and making us less dependent on foreign suppliers. This cheaper oil benefits almost everyone, but getting that oil from the oil fields to the refineries brings up several issues.
Moving so much of this newly available oil by rail contributes to heavy congestion on the railroads. Shippers report delays in deliveries of everything from autos to grain and Amtrak has experienced considerable delays in their daily schedule because they share the same tracks the freight trains use, but there are other factors to consider, the necessity for increased inspections, maintenance and repair of the tracks and switches all along the way is only the most obvious.
Moving oil by train does have the advantage of flexibility, routing trains to the refinery best able to handle the crude in a timely manner, is no small benefit. It's also possible to build loading and unloading terminals quickly, in months instead of the years often necessary for standard pipelines since they so often run into political opposition.
On the other hand, there is some debate about the safety of shipping so much oil by rail, but oddly enough, the higher volatility of Bakken Shale oil, often brought up in these debates, isn't the only issue, there's also the increased opportunity for human error all along the way. Oil sent by pipelines is a far simpler operation with far fewer opportunities for accidents than putting it on thousands of individual rail cars on hundreds of trains rolling through towns and cities and over railroad crossings. Each of these train crews on all of these trains has to do everything right for their freight to reach its destination without incident. Whether caused by human error or structural failure, accidents on an oil train can be disastrous, one oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, resulted in an explosion and fires that killed 47 people in 2013.
Since Lac-Mégantic, several trains have derailed and exploded. Most of these accidents have happened in relatively rural areas like Casselton, N.D., a town of about 2,500 people 24 miles west of Fargo. But one occurred in downtown Lynchburg, Va., forcing the evacuation of much of the downtown in a city with 78,000 residents.
What are the options?
Some things are better suited to one kind of transportation over another. When moving coal, for instance, trains are ideal, they carry a lot of it and though a derailment may dump it on the ground, there is no explosion or fire hazard, it can be cleaned up with heavy equipment and there are no realistic alternatives. Oil, though, can possibly catch fire and explode, a spill creates a far more complex cleanup and pipelines today are an efficient, simple and safer alternative. Train derailments are not unusual, but the derailment of an oil train, because of the cargo, is far more serious.
For local communities, like North East, the major impact is primarily the increased train traffic through town and it's not unique to our community, since these trains pass through every town and city in every state along these rail lines. Also, many hazardous materials besides crude oil, like ethanol and LNG, roll by on many days without incident, so there is no need to exaggerate the danger, however, because of the sheer volume of oil these trains carry, residents should at least be aware of them and it's important for local emergency responders to have the necessary training and access to proper equipment in the unlikely, but potentially serious, event of a derailment or other accident. Our local officials should also have an appropriate emergency response plan in place should something occur.
This oil is good for the country, it needs to move and oil trains are a necessary short term solution, but long term, all things considered, pipelines make more sense.
In the meantime, if you would like to see this virtual oil pipeline with your own eyes, spend a few hours trackside at our local railway museum. You're likely to come away with a new appreciation of how much oil moves through North East every day. It will also provide food for thought when forming your own opinion about whether pipelines or trains are the better option for moving the oil from drilling rigs to the refineries before reaching the tank in your car.