Is there a safe way to transport fossil fuels?

Bakken Rail Cars

With an explosive investigation into the failures of the government agency responsible for ensuring pipeline safety by Politico and the growing list of pipeline accidents and spills (already 9 in the US this year alone), people are questioning not only the consequences to environmental health but also the risks to people and communities of new construction projects.

One popular alternative, and Warren Buffett investment strategy, is to ship oil and gas above ground, using America’s storied railways. However, the shift to rail transport is not making the transport of fossil fuels safer, as the Washington Post reported in February.

Part of the problem is the apparent unpreparedness of the infrastructure, both physical and regulatory, for the boom in rail transport. As Brian Tumulty of the Politics on the Hudson blog reports, the ubiquitous DOT-111 railcar is decades behind the times, but retrofitting or building new cars quickly is something for which no one wants to take responsibility. Tumulty quotes the Association of American Railroads and the American Petroleum Institute, in a bifurcated entreaty for self-governance and public patience: “Modernization for improved safety of the entire fleet is, of course, the ultimate goal. However, this cannot be achieved overnight and the capacity for rail car shops to retrofit the existing cars and to build new cars is finite.”

‘Finite’ can also be used to describe other aspects of the operation. Although just two years ago the American Enterprise Institute was prophesying 100 years of the Bakken oil boom, the US Energy Information Agency was only able to find enough proved reserves of shale oil in the entire US to last us 18 months, according to this report from National Geographic. It’s easy to see the hesitation in building safe, new rail cars if they won’t be needed much longer.

When we address our energy future, we often discuss the sourcing and the usage, neglecting the fact that there are many precarious steps in between. Certainly there have been short-term economic advantages to the fracking boom in the US, but as we look to long-term energy solutions, it is imperative that safety and health of people and the environment are our top concerns.


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