Monday, December 9, 2013
With pipelines running at capacity and new oil fields operating beyond their reach, oil companies are moving ever-increasing quantities of crude oil by rail. This chart shows quarterly shipment totals, by rail carload, from 2009 through the first quarter of 2013.
SOURCE: Association of American Railroads
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In this July 6 photo, flames and smoke rise from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, devastating the downtown and killing dozens. Federal officials agreed Friday, July 12, 2013 to inspect the Maine tracks of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, less than one week after a runaway train operating on the company's tracks derailed and sparked the deadly explosion. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
The incident in Quebec has competed for news coverage in Washington -- and often lost that competition -- with last weekend's crash of the Asiana Airlines jetliner in San Francisco that killed three people and injured more than 180 others.
Had the accident happened about 40 to 50 miles east on Montreal, Maine and Atlantic tracks that pass through the Maine lakeside town of Jackman, the reaction in Washington likely would have been much different.
Not surprisingly, members of Maine's delegation have been more engaged than most members of Congress, given the deadly incident's proximity to their home state.
Michaud and Pingree -- both Democrats -- wrote to federal rail and transportation officials asking them to "provide a detailed accounting of the rail networks currently used to transport crude oil and other petroleum products in Maine, identifying any weaknesses in existing infrastructure, and describing best practices to address any deficiencies you find."
The office of Maine Sen. Angus King said late Friday that the independent fully supports the upcoming inspection and is awaiting findings of the Canadian investigation "to determine if any legislative steps can be taken to correct any issues that contributed to the accident."
Nearly 5.3 million barrels of crude oil passed through Maine last year -- up from just 25,000 barrels in 2011. And that number is on the rise as more oil flows from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and is shipped via rail to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.
But a 2006 study by the Maine Department of Transportation found that 92 percent of the active tracks in Maine barely had the capacity to support a modern tank car filled with oil.
Transportation officials in both the United States and Canada have repeatedly warned that the common type of tank cars involved in the Quebec derailment -- known as the DOT-111 car -- are more prone to punctures or leaks in accidents than more modern cars.
DOT-111 tank cars make up 69 percent of the tanker fleet in the United States and are the primary rail method for transporting both crude oil and ethanol, a much more highly volatile substance. The NTSB has repeatedly linked spills and other accidents -- some fatal -- to failures of the cars.
"I think we do need to take a look at the integrity of these rail cars -- most of which are very old -- now that they are being used to transport oil from North Dakota," Collins said in an interview. "But this also raises the question of whether it would be far safer to transport oil by pipelines."
Collins' latter statement was a reference to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil largely from Canada's oil sands or "tar sands" fields in Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The Obama administration is currently reviewing a permit application for the pipeline's northern section and, in the process, being lobbied heavily by both sides on the issue.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also mentioned the pipeline when asked whether the Quebec incident raised concerns in his mind about the trend of shipping crude oil by train.
"Many of us think this is an argument for why we need to build the Keystone XL pipeline because that is a very safe and efficient way to transport petroleum," Thune said.
Additionally, the Senate committee has asked the General Accounting Office to review the safety of the country's U.S. freight rail system.
That review is expected to be complete in October, according to Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees rail safety.
As for the Quebec incident, Hall said Warner is monitoring the Canadian investigation.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: