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Oil Spills by Rail Spiked Last Year, Gross Understatement

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The Correlation is Simple, More Oil Trains=More Oil Spills
The Correlation is Simple, More Oil Trains = More Oil Spills

Perhaps the last time anyone heard of an oil spill, it was related to the DeepWater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, estimated to have spilled some 157 million gallons of crude petroleum into the ocean.

Offshore oil platforms seem to grab big media attention, but as hard as they are to clean up after, they aren’t the only oil spills worth mentioning. Pipeline spills, such as those that have ruined small towns around Mayflower, Arkansas, have gone largely unnoticed by mainstream media. Within a couple of weeks, they are all but forgotten. My, what a short memory we have, as new pipelines are continuing to be built. Another oil transport problem is becoming more noticed, but only because of the huge accidents that have occurred, and I’m sure this one will fade just as quickly.

Thanks to Because of recent petroleum discoveries in the Bakken Formation, in Northwest North Dakota, as well as new extraction techniques, domestic petroleum production has boomed. Along with it, of course, must come a boom in petroleum transportation, and thus the increased chance of oil spills. Because oil pipelines are long-term, expensive, and politically divisive, they don’t go everywhere, especially not to oil producers’ target markets on the coasts. Rail transportation is a far more flexible option, but it seems that no one counted on it being far more dangerous.

In July, 2013, a petroleum-hauling tanker train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebéc, Canada. The resulting oil spill was about 1/100th the size of the DeepWater Horizon oil spill, some 1.58 million gallons of crude petroleum, and killed 47 people in the subsequent fires. Additionally, counting other oil spills related to increasingly-popular rail transportation, these so-called “mobile pipelines” spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude petroleum in 2013, alone. According to data from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, just 0.8 million gallons of crude petroleum was spilled between 1975 and 2012, covering 38 years of records.

The cause is obvious. There is big money in domestic petroleum, and transportation needs to catch up. For example, just 9,500 tanks of crude petroleum was shipped in 2008. In 2012, that number jumped to 234,000, a 2,400% increase. At the same time, tankers are being overloaded and mislabeled to get them moving, increasing the chances of an oil spill, with disastrous consequences.

Photo credit: Russ Allison Loar Foter.com CC BY-NC-ND

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