Alabama Derailment the Latest Oil-by-Rail Flashpoint

Investigators work at the train derailment site July 9, 2013 in Lac-megantic, Quebec, Canada.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Nov. 8, 2013, 1:40 p.m.

Fri­day’s de­rail­ment of a crude-oil train in Alabama is the latest in a series of in­cid­ents that have put in­creas­ing scru­tiny on rail-safety stand­ards and promp­ted pipeline ad­voc­ates to call for ex­pan­sion of that meth­od of oil trans­port­a­tion.

No in­jur­ies were re­por­ted in the rur­al de­rail­ment, but 11 cars were left burn­ing with flames shoot­ing 300 feet in­to the air. Sev­er­al Ca­na­dian de­rail­ments earli­er this year promp­ted tightened safety stand­ards, but some say that’s not good enough. Green­peace Canada’s Keith Stew­art told Na­tion­al Journ­al that rail trans­port of oil has “been un­safe since the 1990s.”¦ [But the cars] con­tin­ue to be used.”

While Stew­art sees that as a reas­on to in­vest in re­new­able en­ergy, oth­ers are call­ing for an in­crease in pipelines. “Pipelines are safer than rail,” As­so­ci­ation of Oil Pipe Lines Pres­id­ent An­drew Black said in an in­ter­view last month. “There are few­er pipeline in­cid­ents per tons of crude oil moved.”

That num­ber is skewed, said Holly Ar­thur, spokes­wo­man for the As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ic­an Rail­roads, be­cause pipelines are not held to the same strin­gent re­port­ing stand­ards as rail­roads. “At the end of the day, pipelines spill more of the ma­ter­i­al than do rail­roads,” Ar­thur said. “Both modes are in­cred­ibly safe.”

The safety de­bate shows no signs of stop­ping, but it’s un­likely that will stop pipeline ad­voc­ates from cit­ing the latest de­rail­ment as an ex­ample of why pro­jects like the Key­stone XL pipeline should be ap­proved. And while that ar­gu­ment con­tin­ues — and more pipelines are stalled — more and more oil will con­tin­ue mov­ing through the U.S. by rail.

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