The train derailment and fire in North Dakota that forced the evacuation of a nearby town are sure to trigger more debate about the safety of transporting oil as the U.S. reviews Trans-Canada Corp.’s proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
“Any time there is an incident, you have heightened talk and scrutiny on oil transportation,” Brigham McCown, a former director of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said. “It will add to the conversation.”
More than 2,000 North Dakota residents were urged to flee possibly toxic fumes from the fire that engulfed BNSF Railway Co. cars carrying oil after they crashed Monday with another train about 25 miles west of Fargo. Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. of Omaha.
While climate change has been the focus of the fight over Keystone, a subset in the debate has been the relative safety of pipelines versus trains as the U.S. State Department weighs whether the project is in the U.S. national interest. The agency has jurisdiction because Keystone crosses the border. The $5.4 billion project would link Alberta’s oil sands and refineries along the Gulf Coast.
The accident in North Dakota is the fourth major North American derailment in six months by trains transporting crude. Record volumes of oil are moving by rail as production from North Dakota and Texas have pushed U.S. output to the most since 1988, and pipeline capacity has failed to keep up.
“I think this — seemingly yet another rail incident — will add to the clamor,” for more regulation of shipping oil by rail, Tony Hatch, an independent rail analyst based in New York, said.
Critics of Keystone have pointed to pipeline spills in Alabama and North Dakota to show that method of transporting oil carries its own hazards.
Despite the incidents, McCown, who is now an industry consultant and a supporter of Keystone, said both trains and pipelines are safe, with few incidents relative to the amount of crude they transport. One advantage pipelines have is that they tend to be in more sparsely populated areas, he said.
“Rail built the West. Rail built most of the towns,” he said. “As a consequence, there are more rail lines going through more populated areas.”
Anthony Swift, an attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, said Monday’s incident underscores the need to improve train safety in the U.S., regardless of whether Keystone gets built.
“Crude by rail is happening in North Dakota. It’s not related to Keystone,” Swift said. “Keystone isn’t going to eliminate this crude-by-rail movement in the U.S.”
McCown said rail use would probably increase if Keystone were blocked. “The oil will find its way to market,” he said.
Critics of Keystone argue that development will stall if the pipeline, which would have a capacity to carry 830,000 barrels of crude, is blocked by the administration.
Michael Whatley, executive vice president of Consumer Energy Alliance, an industry-backed group that supports Keystone, said more rail accidents can be expected with the increased use of trains to carry oil to market.
“Trains need to be a supplement, not a replacement” to pipelines, Whatley said. While both forms of transportation are safe, “we need expanded pipeline infrastructure,” he said.
A draft supplemental environmental impact statement released by the State Department in March includes a brief comparison of the safety of pipelines versus rail.
While derailments probably would release less oil than a pipeline rupture, trains have an “increased statistical likelihood of spills,” the report said.
The North Dakota crash is “a wake-up call for what increased oil production in North America is going to mean” for communities in the U.S., said Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, a Washington-based group that opposes the use of more fossil fuels.
Kretzmann said that while he expects advocates of the Keystone pipeline to use the train crash as evidence that rail transport is unsafe, pipelines also pose dangers.
The best solution “is to phase down oil production,” Kretzmann said.
The most recent incident occurred when a westbound train carrying soybeans derailed west of Casselton, N.D., Monday, said Cecily Fong, a spokeswoman for the state Emergency Services Department. An eastbound train carrying oil hit the derailed train, causing the fire, she said.
Nineteen cars carrying crude oil derailed, said Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Initial reports were the rail oil-carrying cars were DOT-111 models, he said. The NTSB has urged the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to issue tougher standards for such cars to make them more resistant to puncture during accidents.