Is America’s Oil Transport by Rail Putting Lives at Risk?

March 6, 2015 Updated: March 7, 2015

The oil and gas boom in the United States is good for the goal of energy independence, but is the transport of light sweet crude oil by rail through local cities and towns worth the risk?

“U.S. Rail used to be a major form of passenger transportation and all of these rail lines go through not only big cities but small towns all along their path. And so if something does happen, the probability of it causing a loss of human life is much greater than a pipeline,” said James L. Williams, an energy economist with WTRG in Arkansas.

According to federal government data, since 2007, the quantity of light crude shipped across North America by rail primarily from the Bakken formation in North Dakota has spiked significantly, increasing from approximately 132,000 barrels per day to 1.3 million barrels per day this year—and growing.

“It has tripled in the last four or five years. You can’t build pipelines fast enough to keep up with that volume. So it ends up being shipped by rail,” Williams said.

Since 2013, the number of significant oil train crashes has also spiked—nine were investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) from 2013 to 2014. Three more accidents have happened in just the last three weeks.

The most recent on March 5 involved eight cars of a 103-car train carrying oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota, which derailed in northwestern Illinois near the historic tourist area of Galena, according to EcoWatch. The other two derailments occurred in West Virginia and Ontario, Canada.

Volatile Oil

Independent tests obtained by Earth Island Journal in 2014 suggested that the North Dakota light oil is more flammable. But, increasing concerns over safety had already caused the Federal Railroad Administration to issue an emergency order in August 2013 establishing additional safety measures.

More recently, North Dakota Industrial Commission issued an order on Dec. 9, which imposes new regulations on oil companies. Scheduled to go into effect on April 1, 2015, the new regulation will require all new wells in the Bakken region to utilize equipment that controls vapor pressure, to lessen the chance of explosions during transportation.

Lower Cost

Rail transport is significantly cheaper than truck so it is the transport of choice for oil companies. It’s also more flexible than pipelines, according to a Progressive Railroading report.

“Pipelines are expensive and they are hard to build, and you are committed to transferring your product from point A to point B in a pipeline, where with rail, you can transport your product to point x, y, z, e, d, and q,” explained Matt Krogh, director of U.S. Campaign at ForestEthics, an advocacy organization against oil transport by rail.


Krogh says that the consumption of crude oil in the United States has gone down 14 percent in the last 10 years, but the Energy Department reported last week that U.S. oil supplies are at their highest point in 80 years, and they’re running out of storage space, with foreign oil exports still coming in.

So what are they doing with all that oil?

According to media reports, most of the oil is being stored in Cushing, Okla., a city of approximately 8000 people where a line of storage tanks can hold 85 million barrels of oil.

North Dakota producers have a vast volume of the light crude oil coming out, but only a few areas in the United States really need it. So they are trying to find ways to get it to refineries that can use it, which are located all over the place, according to Krogh.

What it’s really about is oil producers, oil companies overproducing.
— Matt Krogh, director of U.S. Campaign, ForestEthics

“If you look around the U.S. what you see are refining centers that were created to be optimized for certain types of crude that they are closest to,” he said, “they are optimized for certain fuel mixes and it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to change those refineries for different fuel mixes.”

The centers that can refine the light oil are eager to export it, according to Krogh, and there are dozens of offloading terminals that take oil from the train and either put it on ships or refine it.

“What it’s really about is oil producers, oil companies overproducing, desperate to find ways to make a profit and the way they want to do it is running dangerous oil trains through all these communities all over America,” said Krogh.