Illinois Burning

Energy Superpower Ambitions of US and Canada

America is literally on fire: How out-of-control oil spills are destroying our population centers

David Dayen, Salon

Tuesday, Mar 10, 2015 06:30 AM EST

It’s a good bet that someplace in North America is on fire right now, raging so out of control that officials have to let it burn itself out. And it happened because highly flammable oil was placed on a train for shipping, and something went drastically wrong. Because so much oil is transported by rail these days, the probabilities of catastrophe have elevated significantly. We haven’t ruined a major population center yet only through dumb luck; and we haven’t cracked down on this treacherous practice only because of the enormous power of the industry.

Those who respond to oil train derailments by claiming that the Keystone XL pipeline would solve the problem neglect the fact that a pipeline would not be able to carry even half of what flows from the Bakken region. More important, because of the collapse in oil prices, new infrastructure like a pipeline has ceased to make economic sense, relative to the existing infrastructure of transporting by rail.

Perhaps the scariest part of all of this is the perilous financial state of the oil industry today, which if anything will increase the danger. Energy companies are rapidly going bankrupt, as they cannot service debt with lower oil revenue. Companies on the edge will have to cut costs to keep afloat, and when costs are at issue, traditionally safety goes out the window.

According to a report in Reuters, the White House considered a provision to remove these volatile gases (known in the industry as “light ends”), but ultimately punted, letting North Dakota rules govern. Federal officials were concerned about their jurisdiction to dictate treatment of light ends. But critics believe the federal government relying on North Dakota – a conservative state not exactly known for its strict adherence to regulations – increases the risk of shipping oil by rail. That’s especially concerning when you consider that the trains travel all across the country, and that some Bakken shale comes from neighboring states like Montana. For their part, the White House denied they held off on improving oil train safety.

Increased domestic oil production is always depicted as an unalloyed good, with no discussion of the costs, like turning trains into bombs nationwide. There’s reason to believe that no tank car is safe enough to carry something this volatile, and that the risks exceed what the public should reasonably bear. DoT has nonchalantly predicted 10 derailments a year on oil trains, with billions in damages. If anything that’s an underestimate.

One reason the planet continues to boil is that oil companies have been allowed to externalize their costs onto government. Oil appears “cheaper” than solar or wind, because these costs never come into account. But solar power doesn’t blow up while being carried through a major city on a train. And if we want to seriously talk about what kind of energy we can afford in the future, that has to enter the conversation.


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