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Richmond, CA crude by rail protest

CA Refineries: Sources of Oil and Crude-by-Rail Terminals

CA Crude by Rail, from the Bakken Shale and Canada’s Tar Sands to California Refineries
By
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator &
Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement

Refineries in California plan to increase capacity and refine more Bakken Shale crude oil and Canadian tar sands bitumen. However, CA’s refinery communities that already bear a disparate amount of the burden (the refinery corridor along the north shore of the East Bay) will be more impacted than they were previously. New crude-by-rail terminals will put additional Californians at risk of accidents such as spills, derailments, and explosions. Additionally, air quality in refinery communities will be further degraded as refineries change to lower quality sources of crude oil. Below we discuss where the raw crude oil originates, why people are concerned about crude-by-rail projects, and what CA communities are doing to protect themselves. We also discuss our GIS analysis, showing the number of Californians living within the half-mile blast zones of the rail lines that currently are or will be supported by the new and existing crude by rail terminal projects.

Sources of Raw Crude Oil

Sources of Refinery HAPs

Figure 1. Sources of crude oil feedstock refined in California over time (CA Energy Commission, 2015)

California’s once plentiful oil reserves of locally extracted crude are dwindling and nearing depletion. Since 1985, crude extraction in CA has dropped by half. Production from Alaska has dropped even more, from 2 million B/D (barrels per day) to around 500,000 B/D. The 1.9 million B/D refining capacity in CA is looking for new sources of fuels. Refineries continue to supplement crude feedstock with oil from other sources, and the majority has been coming from overseas, specifically Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This trend is shown in figure 1.

Predictions project that sources of raw crude oil are shifting to the energy intensive Bakken formation and Canadian Tar Sands. The Borealis Centre estimates an 800% increase of tar sands oil in CA refineries over the next 25 years (NRDC, 2015). The increase in raw material from these isolated locations means new routes are necessary to transport the crude to refineries. New pipelines and crude-by-rail facilities would be necessary, specifically in locations where there are not marine terminals such as the Central Valley and Central Coast of CA. The cheapest way for operators in the Canadian Tar Sands and North Dakota’s Bakken Shale to get their raw crude to CA’s refinery markets is by railroad (30% less than shipping by marine routes from ports in Oregon and Washington), but this process also presents several issues.

CA Crude by Rail

More than 1 million children — 250,000 in the East Bay — attend school within one mile of a current or proposed oil train line (CBD, 2015). Using this “oil train blast zone” map developed by ForestEthics (now called Stand) you can explore the various areas at risk in the US if there was an oil train explosion along a rail line. Unfortunately, there are environmental injustices that exist for communities living along the rail lines that would be transporting the crude according to another ForestEthics report.

To better understand this issue, last year we published an analysis of rail lines known to be used for transporting crude along with the locations of oil train incidents and accidents in California. This year we have updated the rail lines in the map below to focus on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific (UP) railroad lines, which will be the predominant lines used for crude-by-rail transport and are also the focus of the CA Emergency Management Agency’s Oil by Rail hazard map.

The specific focus of the map in Figure 2 is the five proposed and eight existing crude-by-rail terminals that allow oil rail cars to unload at the refineries. The eight existing rail terminals have a combined capacity of 496,000 barrels. Combined, the 15 terminals would increase CA’s crude imports to over 1 million B/D by rail. The currently active terminals are shown with red markers. Proposed terminals are shown with orange markers, and inactive terminals with yellow markers. Much of the data on terminals was taken from the Oil Change International Crude by Rail Map, which covers the entire U.S.

Figure 2. Map of CA Crude by Rail Terminals

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work | Download Rail Terminal Map Data

Additional Proposals

The same type of facility is currently operating in the East Bay’s refinery corridor in Richmond, CA. The Kinder Morgan Richmond terminal was repurposed from handling ethanol to crude oil, but with no public notice. The terminal began operating without conducting an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) or public review of the permit. Unfortunately, this anti-transparent process was similar to a tactic used by another facility in Kern County. The relatively new (November 2014) terminal in Taft, CA operated by Plains All American Pipeline LLC also did not conduct an EIR, and the permit is being challenged on the grounds of not following the CA Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

EIRs are an important component of the permitting process for any hydrocarbon-related facility. In April 2015 in Pittsburg, for example, a proposed 50,000 B/D terminal at the WesPac Midstream LLC’s railyard was abandoned due to community resistance and criticism over the EIR from the State Attorney General, along with the larger proposal of a 192,000 B/D marine terminal.

Still, many other proposals are in the works for this region. Targa Resources, a midstream logistics company, has a proposed a 70,000 B/D facility in the Port of Stockton, CA. Alon USA has a permitted project for revitalizing an idle Bakersfield refinery because of poor economics and have a permit to construct a two-unit train/day (150,000 B/D) offloading facility on the refinery property. Valero dropped previous plans for a rail oil terminal at its Wilmington refinery in the Los Angeles/Long Beach port area, and Questar Pipeline has preliminary plans for a  rail oil terminal in the desert east of the Palm Springs area for a unit-train/day.

Air Quality Impacts of Refining Tar Sands Oil

Crude-by-rail terminals bring with them not only the threat of derailments and the risk of other such accidents, but the terminals are also a source of air emissions. Terminals – both rail and marine – are major sources of PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). The Sacramento Valley Railroad (SAV) Patriot rail oil terminal at a business park on the former McClellan Air Force Base property actually had its operating permit withdrawn by Sacramento air quality regulators due to this issue (read more). The terminal was unloading and reloading oil tanker cars.

FracTracker’s recent report, Emissions in the Refinery Corridor, shows that the refineries in this region are the major point source for emissions of both cancer and non-cancer risk drivers in the region. These air pollution sources get worse, however. According to the report by NRDC, changing the source of crude feedstock to increased amounts of Canadian Tar Sands oil and Bakken Shale oil would:

… increase the levels of highly toxic fugitive emissions; heavy emissions of particulate, metals, and benzene; result in a higher risk of refinery accidents; and the accumulation of petroleum coke* (a coal-like, dusty byproduct of heavy oil refining linked to severe respiratory impacts). This possibility would exacerbate the harmful health effects faced by the thousands of low-income families that currently live around the edges of California’s refineries. These effects are likely to include harmful impacts to eyes, skin, and the nervous and respiratory systems. Read NRDC Report

Petroleum coke (petcoke) is a waste product of refining tar sands bitumen (oil), and will burden the communities near the refineries that process tar sands oil. Petcoke has recently been identified as a major source of exposures to carcinogenic PAH’s in Alberta Canada (Zhang et al., 2016). For more information about the contributions of petcoke to poor air quality and climate change, read this report by Oil Change International.

The contribution to climate change from accessing the tar sands also needs to be considered. Extracting tar sands is estimated to release on average 17% average more green-house gas (GHG) emissions than conventional oil extraction operations in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of State. (Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change on a global scale.) The refining process, too, has a larger environmental / public health footprint; refining the tar sands to produce gasoline or diesel generates an average of 81% more GHGs (U.S. Dept of State. Appendix W. 2015). In total this results in a much larger climate impact (NRDC, NextGen Climate, Forest Ethics. 2015).

Local Fights

People opposed to CA crude by rail have been fighting the railway terminal proposals on several fronts. In Benicia, Valero’s proposal for a rail terminal was denied by the city’s Planning Commission, and the project’s environmental impact report was denied, as well. The city of Benicia, however, hired lawyers to ensure that the railway projects are built. The legality of railway development is protected regardless of the impacts of what the rails may be used to ship. This legal principle is referred to as “preemption,” which means the federal permitting prevents state or local actions from trying to limit or block development. In this case, community and environmental advocacy groups such as Communities for a Better Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Stanford-Mills Law Project all agree the “preemption” doctrine doesn’t apply here. They believe preemption does not disallow the city or other local governments from blocking land use permits for the refinery expansion and crude terminals that unload the train cars at the refinery.  The Planning Commission’s decision is being appealed by Valero, and another meeting is scheduled for September, 2016.

The fight for local communities along the rail-lines is more complicated when the refinery is far way, under the jurisdiction of other municipalities. Such is the case for the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery, located on California State Highway 1 on the Nipomo Mesa. The Santa Maria refinery is requesting land use permits to extend track to the Union Pacific Railway that transits CA’s central coast. The extension is necessary to bring the rail cars to the proposed rail terminal. This project would not just increase traffic within San Luis Obispo, but for the entirety of the rail line, which passes directly through the East Bay. The project would mean an 80-car train carrying 2 million gallons of Bakken Crude would travel through the East Bay from Richmond through Berekely and Emeryville to Jack London Square and then south through Oakland and the South Bay.  This would occur 3 to 5 times per week. In San Luis Obispo county 88,377 people live within the half-mile blast zone of the railroad tracks.

In January, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department proposed to deny Phillips 66 the permits necessary for the rail spur and terminals. This decision was not easy, as Phillips 66, a corporation ranked Number 7 on the Fortune 500 list, has fought the decision. The discussion remained open with many days of meetings, but the majority of the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission spoke in favor of the proposal at a meeting Monday, May 16. There is overwhelming opposition to the rail spur project coming from 250 miles away in Berkeley, CA. In 2014, the Berkeley and Richmond city councils voted to oppose all transport of crude oil through the East Bay. Without the rail spur approval, Phillips 66 declared the Santa Maria refinery would otherwise transport oil from Kern County via 100 trucks per day. Learn more about this project.

GIS Analysis

GIS techniques were used to estimate the number of Californians living in the half mile “at risk” blast zone in the communities hosting the crude-by-rail lines. First, we estimated the total population of Californians living a half mile from the BNSF and UP rail lines that could potentially transport crude trains. Next, we limited our study area to just the East Bay refinery corridor, which included Contra Costa and the city of Benicia in Solano County. Then, we estimated the number of Californians that would be living near rail lines if the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery crude by rail project is approved and becomes operational. The results are shown below:

  1. Population living within a half mile of rail lines throughout all of California: 6,900,000
  2. Population living within a half mile of rail lines in CA’s East Bay refinery communities: 198,000
  3. Population living within a half mile of rail lines along the UP lines connecting Richmond, CA to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery: 930,000

CA Crude by Rail References

  1. NRDC. 2015. Next Frontier for Dangerous Tar Sands Cargo:California. Accessed 4/15/16.
  2. Oil Change International. 2015. Rail Map.
  3. Global Community Monitor. 2014. Community Protest Against Crude Oil by Rail Blocks Entrance to Kinder Morgan Rail Yard in Richmond
  4. CEC. 2015. Sources of Oil to California Refineries. California Energy Commission. Accessed 4/15/16.
  5. Zhang Y, Shotyk W, Zaccone C, Noernberg T, Pelletier R, Bicalho B, Froese DG, Davies L, and Martin JW. 2016. Airborne Petcoke Dust is a Major Source of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Environmental Science and Technology. 50 (4), pp 1711–1720.
  6. U.S. Dept of State. 2015. Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL Pipeline. Accessed 5/15/16.
  7. U.S. Dept of State. 2015. Appendix W Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL Pipeline Appendix W. Accessed 5/15/16.
  8. NRDC, NextGen Climate, Forest Ethics. 2015. West Coast Tar Sands Invasion. NRDC 2015. Accessed 4/15/16.

** Feature image of the protest at the Richmond Chevron Refinery courtesy of Global Community Monitor.

Largest Coastal Spill in 25 years [in California]

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

The Santa Barbara Pipeline Spill

On May 19, 2015, just 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, a heavily corroded section of pipeline ruptured spilling upwards of 101,000 gallons. The pipeline was operated by Plains All American LLC, based out of Houston Texas, and was used to move crude oil from offshore rigs to inland refineries. The spill occurred on a section of pipe running parallel to the coastline at a distance of only a tenth of a mile to the ocean. As a result, the ruptured oil traveled through a drainage culvert and onto the beach where 21,000 gallons spilled into the ocean. The oil spread into a slick that covered 4 miles of coastline, and has since spread to southern California beaches more than 100 miles to the south. Santa Barbara county officials immediately closed two beaches, Refugio and El Capitan, and southern California beaches were also closed June 3rd through June 5th. Commercial fishing has been prohibited near the spill, and nearly 300 dead marine mammals and birds have been found, as well as dead cephalopods (octopi).1

Mapping the Impacts


Santa Barbara 2015 Oil Spill at Refugio Beach. To view the legend and map full screen, click here.

The map above shows details of the oil spill, including the location on the coastline, the extent that the spill traveled south, and the Exxon offshore platforms forced to suspend operations due to their inability to transport crude to onshore refineries.

The dynamic map also shows the wildlife habitats that are impacted by this oil spill, putting these species at risk. This area of Central California coastline is incredibly unique. The Santa Barbara Channel Islands are formed and molded as colder northern swells meet warmer southern swells, generating many temperature gradients and microhabitats able to support an incredible amount of biodiversity. Many species are endemic to only this region of the California coastline, and therefore are very sensitive to the impacts of pollution. In addition to the many bird species, including the endangered Western Snow Plover and Golden Eagle, this area of coastline is home to a number of whale and porpoise species, and, as seen in the map, the Leatherback Sea Turtle and the Black Abolone Sea Snail, both threatened.

Santa Barbara Channel_10.7.13

Figure 1. Offshore Drilling Near Santa Barbara from 2013

For California’s harbor seal populations, this kill event reinforces existing environmental pressures that have been shrinking the seal and sea lion (pinniped) communities, increasing the threat of shark attacks on humans. For the potential impact that this could have on California’s sensitive sea otter population, see FracTracker’s recent story on the West Coast Sea Otter.

In 2013, The FracTracker Alliance collaborated with the Environmental Defense Center on the report Dirty Water: Fracking Offshore California. The report showed that much of the offshore oil is extracted by hydraulic fracturing (Fig 1.), and outlined the environmental impacts that would result from a spill of this magnitude.

Clean Up Efforts

Workers are currently cleaning the spill by hand using buckets and shovels. These old fashioned techniques may be painstaking, but they are the least invasive and they are necessary to ensure that there is not additional damage to the sensitive ecosystems. Even scraping the coastline with wire brushes and putty knives cannot remove the stain of oil that has been absorbed by porous rocks. The oil will only wear away with time as it is diluted back into the ocean. Costs of the clean-up response alone have already reached $92 million, which is being paid by Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline. There have not been any reports yet on the financial impacts to the recreational and fishing industries.2

Prevention Opportunities

By comparison, the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 was estimated at 200 million gallons. After over 45 years, nearly a half decade, one would think that advancements in pipeline engineering and technology would prevent these types of accidents. Plains All American, the pipeline operator states that their pressure monitors can detect leaks the size of pinholes. Why, then, did the ruptured pipe continue to spill crude for three hours after the public was notified of the incident?

This section of pipeline (falsely reported by the media to be abandoned) was built in 1987. At capacity the pipeline could transport 50,400 gallons of oil per hour, but during the time of the spill the pipeline was running under capacity. Pipeline inspections had occurred in 2012 and in April of 2014, just weeks prior. The Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration said testing conducted in May had identified extensive corrosion of the pipeline that required maintenance. It is possible that this incident is an isolated case of mismanagement, but the data tell a different story as this is not an isolated event.

Plains released a statement that a spill of this magnitude was “highly unlikely,” although this section of the pipeline has experienced multiple other spills, the largest of which being 1,200 gallons. Just a year prior, May 2014, the same company, Plains, was responsible for a 19,000 gallon spill of crude in Atwater Village in Los Angeles County. According to a joint hearing of two legislative committees, the operators, Plains did not meet state guidelines for reporting the spill. According to the county, the operator should have been able to shut down the pipeline much faster.3 It is not clear how long the pipeline was actually leaking.

NASA Spill Visualizations

As a result of the spill and to assist with the clean-up and recovery, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA has developed new technology to track the oil slick and locate contamination of beaches along the coastline. The JPL deployed a De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft carrying a unique airborne instrument developed to study the spill and test the ability of imaging spectroscopy to map tar on area beaches. What this means is that from aircraft special cameras can take pictures of the beach. Based on the nature of the light waves reflecting off the beach in the pictures, tar balls and oil contamination can be identified. Clean-up crews can then be dispatched to these areas. On their website, NASA states “The work is advancing our nation’s ability to respond to future oil spills.”4 A picture generated using this technology, and showing oil contamination in water and on the beach, is shown below.

SBOilSpill_NASA

References

  1.  Maza, C. 2015. California oil spill: Regulators, lawmakers scrutinize company response. Christian Science Monitor. Accessed 7/1/15.
  2. Chang, A. 2015. Workers clean up oil spill on California beaches by hand. The Washington Times. Accessed 7/5/15.
  3. Panzar, J. 2015. Official says pipeline firm violated state guidelines for reporting Santa Barbara spill. Los Angeles Times. Accessed 7/6/15.
  4. NASA. 2015. NASA Maps Beach Tar from California Oil Pipeline Spill. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology. Accessed 7/7/17.

Regulatory Gaps for Train Spills?

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

On January 26, 2015, the Columbian, a paper in Southwestern Washington state, reported that an oil tanker spilled over 1,600 gallons of Bakken Crude in early November 2014.  The train spill was never cleaned up, because frankly, nobody knows where the spill occurred. This issue highlights weaknesses in the incident reporting protocol for trains, which appears to be less stringent than other modes of transporting crude.

Possible Train Spill Routes


To follow the most likely train route for this incident, start at the yellow flag, then follow the line west. The route forks at Spokane – the northernmost route would be the most efficient. View full screen map

While there is not a good place for an oil spill of this size, some places are worse than others – and some of the locations along this train route are pretty bad.  For example, the train passes through the southern edge of Glacier National Park in Montana, the scenic Columbia River, and the Spokane and Seattle metropolitan areas.

Significant Reporting Delay

The Columbian article mentions that railroads are required to report spills of hazardous materials in Washington State within 30 minutes of spills being noticed. In this case, however, the spill was apparently not noticed until the tanker car in question was no longer in BNSF custody. Therefore, relevant state and federal regulatory agencies were never made aware of the incident.

Both state and federal officials are now investigating, and we will follow up this post with more details when they are made available.

Lac Mégantic Derailment, Québec in July 2013. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_derailment

Off the Rails: Risks of Crude Oil Transportation by Freight in NY State and Beyond

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Since 2011, North Dakota crude oil from the Bakken Shale Play has made its way to refineries on the east coast via freight trains. This means of oil transportation is becoming increasingly common, as plans for pipeline development have been falling short, but demand for more energy development continues to climb (see New York Times, April 12 , 2014). In addition to the Bakken crude, there are also currently proposals under consideration to ship crude by rail  from Alberta’s tar sands region, along these same routes through New York State.

Alarm about the danger of these “bomb trains” came sharply into public focus after the disaster in Lac Mégantic, Québec in July 2013 when a train carrying 72 carloads of the highly volatile Bakken oil derailed, setting off a massive series of explosions that leveled several blocks of the small town, killing 47 people (photo above). The crude from the Bakken is considerably lighter than that of other oil and gas deposits, making it more volatile than the crude that has been traditionally transported by rail.

Quantifying the Risk

As estimated by the National Transportation Safety Board, with deliveries at about 400,000 barrels a day headed to the Atlantic coast, about a 20-25% of this volume passes through the Port of Albany, NY. There were recent approvals for 3 billion gallons to be processed through Albany. The remainder of the crude is delivered to other ports in the US and Canada. Any oil travelling by rail through the Port of Albany would also pass through significant population centers, including Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. Binghamton, NY is also bisected by commercial rail lines.

In the past year, the New York Times, as well as other media, have reported on the threat of disasters similar to what occurred in Québec last summer, as the freight cars pass through Albany. Not only is the oil itself volatile, safety oversight is extremely spotty. According to The Innovation Trail, “… a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office noted that the Federal Railroad Administration only examines 1-percent of the countries rail road infrastructure.”

RiverKeeper, in their recent report on the topic, notes:

Nationwide, shipping crude oil by rail has jumped six-fold since 2011, according to American Association of Railroads data, and rail shipments from the Bakken region have jumped exponentially since 2009.

This ad-hoc transportation system has repeatedly failed — and spectacularly.

The fires resulting from derailments of Bakken crude oil trains have caused fireballs and have burned so hot that emergency responders often can do nothing but wait—for days—to let the fires burn themselves out.

The Guardian has reported that a legacy of poor regulation and safety failures led to the disaster in Québec, leading to bankruptcy of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (MMA), and numerous class action suits. Records show that MMA was particularly lax in maintaining their rail cars and providing training for their employees. Meanwhile,  in the US, critics of rail transport of volatile crude oil point to inadequate monitoring systems, training, and, importantly, prepared and available emergency response teams that would be able to respond to explosions or disasters anywhere along the route. The size of a explosion that could occur would easily overwhelm volunteer fire and EMT services in many small towns.

These same trains pass through other major cities in Western and Central New York, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica. Not only are the railroads in proximity to significant population centers, they are also close to scores of K-12 schools, endangering the wellbeing of thousands of children (Table 1). In fact, across New York State, 495 K-12 public schools, or 12% of the total in the state, are within a half-mile of major railways–the standard evacuation distance for accidents involving railcars filled with flammable liquids and gases, as recommended by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) in their Emergency Response Guidebook. The US DOT also recommends an isolation zone of 1600 meters (1.0 miles) around any railcars filled with those materials if they are on fire.

Map of NYS Rail Lines and K-12 Schools


Click on this interactive map or pan through the state to explore regions outside of Rochester, NY. For a full-screen view of this map, with a legend, click here.

Buffalo Rail Lines and Proximity to Schools

Fig. 1. Buffalo Rail Lines & Proximity to Schools

For example, on their way through the City of Buffalo crude-carrying freight trains pass within a half-mile of residences of more than 86,000 people, as well as 20 public schools and 4 private schools, and within a half-mile of homes of nearly 60,000 people, 15 public schools, and 5 private schools, on the way through Rochester. See Figures 1-5.

Our work stands in support of and extends the excellent analyses already focusing on the Port of Albany done this past summer by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Healthy Schools Network. (See their report, which looked at the north-south rail corridor in New York State that passes along the Hudson River, within close proximity to 75 K-12 schools).

Table 1. Summary of population statistics in proximity to railways for five New York State cities

City Population
(2010 US Census)

Within ½ Mile of  Freight Rail Way

% Population # K-12 public schools in city # K-12 private schools in city
Buffalo 261,310 33% 28 8
Rochester 214,989 27.4% 15 5
Syracuse 145,168 16% 4 1
Utica 62,230 28.5% 2 0
Binghamton 47,376 63.5% 6 0

Figures 2-5. Proximity maps for Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Binghamton, NY

Rochester, NY

Rochester, NY

Syracuse, NY

Syracuse, NY

Utica, NY

Utica, NY

Binghamton, NY

Binghamton, NY

Learn more about Oil Transportation and Accidents by Rail

Oil Transportation and Accidents by Rail

Lac-Mégantic train explosion on July 6, 2013.  Photo by TSB of Canada.

Lac-Mégantic train explosion on July 6, 2013. Photo by Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

On July 5, 2013, the lone engineer of a Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA) train arrived in Nantes, Quebec, set both the hand and air brakes, finished up his paperwork. He then left the train parked on the main line for the night, unattended atop a long grade. Five locomotives were pulling 72 tanker cars of oil, each containing 30,000 gallons of volatile crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation. During the night, the lead locomotive caught fire, so the emergency responders cut off the engine, as per protocol.  However, that action led to a loss of pressure of the air brakes.  The hand brakes (which were supposed to have been sufficient by themselves) failed, and the train began to run away. By the time it reached Lac-Mégantic early the next morning, the unattended cars were traveling 65 mph.  When the train reached the center of town, 63 tank cars derailed and many of those exploded, tragically killing 47 people in a blaze that took over two days to extinguish.

With that event came a heightened awareness of the risks of transporting volatile petroleum products by rail.  A derailment happened on a BNSF line near Casselton, North Dakota on December 30, 2013. This train was then struck by a train on an adjacent track, igniting another huge fireball, although this one was luckily just outside of town.  On April 30, 2014, a CSX train derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, setting the James River on fire, narrowly avoiding the dense downtown area of the city of 75,000 people.


North American petroleum transportation by rail. Click on the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner to access the full screen map with additional tools and description.

Regulators in the US and Canada are scrambling to keep up.  DOT-111 tank cars were involved in all of these incidents, and regulators seek to phase them out over the next two years. These cars account for 69% of the fleet of tank cars in the US, however, and up to 80% in Canada.  Replacing these cars will be a tough task in the midst of the oil booms in the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays, which have seen crude by rail shipments increase from less than 5,000 cars in 2006 to over 400,000 cars in 2013.

This article is the first of several reports by the FracTracker Alliance highlighting safety and environmental concerns about shipping petroleum and related products by rail. The impacts of the oil and gas extraction industry do not end at the wellhead, but are a part of a larger system of refineries, power plants, and terminals that span the continent.