July 19, 2013

Deadly derailment won't stop oil on trains

Without new pipelines in North America, there's no other way to transport vast amounts of crude from the middle of the continent to its coasts.

The Associated Press

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In this July 12 photo, work continues at the crash site on in Lac-Megantic, Quebec of a train that derailed, igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil that killed fifty people. Trains have become an unexpected yet vital way to move oil from the continent's midsection to refineries along the coasts. However, since the July 6 tragedy, there have been calls for tougher regulations, stronger rail cars and more pipelines. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)

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Just across the Hudson River from New York City, Phillips 66 is building a terminal for its Bayway refinery that will be able to handle up to 100 rail cars — or roughly 70,000 barrels — of crude per day.

Across the continent, in Ferndale, Wash., BP is building a 2-mile rail loop to do the same. And in Vancouver, Tesoro is building a facility that will be able to unload 170 rail cars a day.

Refineries in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Delaware, California and Oregon have projects completed or underway that allow them to accept rail shipments of crude, too. That means the oil, mostly from North Dakota, is crossing all of the states in between. (The train that derailed in Lac-Megantic was North Dakota oil destined for an Irving Oil refinery in St. John, New Brunswick.)

A Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., 80 miles north of Seattle, relies heavily on rail to get crude and a Shell refinery there is getting ready to do the same. Mayor Dean Maxwell said the city's fire department will study the Lac-Megantic accident in an effort to be more prepared. But he considers rail safe and efficient and says the increased train traffic hasn't impacted his community. He's far more worried about other things, like hazardous material traveling on highways.

"We have two refineries within six miles of our downtown," he says. "They're not making ice cream."

While crude transport by rail has grown quickly, it is still a relatively small part of train traffic and the crude trade.

Just 1.4 percent of U.S. rail traffic in the first half of this year was crude oil, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry group. Pipelines and tankers remain by far the most important way to move crude. Railroads and trucks together supplied just 3 percent of the crude oil that arrived at refineries last year, according to the Energy Department.

And of all the hazardous material trains carry, crude isn't the most volatile or hazardous. Trains transport materials such as chlorine, phosphoric acid and propane — even rocket fuel for the Space Shuttle was moved by train. Railroads also move three quarters of the nation's ethanol — which is quicker to explode than crude — from Midwest farms to fuel terminals around the country for blending into gasoline.

"Oil isn't scary at all," says Mayor Richard Gerbounka of Linden, N.J., home of Phillips 66's Bayway Refinery. Even if the mayor did think it was scary, he wouldn't be able to stop it — local officials do not have the power to restrict rail traffic.

Experts say there are two main dangers when transporting crude and ethanol:

— Volume. When commodities are shipped, they are often assembled into so-called "unit trains" that have up to 100 cars all containing the same substance. These unit trains can make for enormous concentrations of hazardous material — up to 3 million gallons of oil or ethanol in a single train.

In contrast, when dangerous chemicals such as chlorine or anhydrous ammonia are shipped, they usually represent just one or two cars in a train of many other cargos such as auto parts or lumber. "One tank car of phosphoric acid doesn't pose that same kind of risk," says Bob Chipkevich, a former director of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations at the National Transportation Safety Board.

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