More bang for the buck? Oil trains and pipelines

Almost five years ago, an oil train, 77 tank cars long and carrying 1.75 million gallons of crude oil, rolled out of control down a long sloping track, picking up speed before derailing and exploding in the small town of Lac Megantic in Quebec.

In the inferno which devastated the center of the town, 47 people lost their lives and over 2000 residents were driven from their homes by the intense heat and explosions.  It was the worst rail accident in Canadian history [1].

But this was no isolated incident. Just four months before, in October 2013, a CN oil train derailed in Alberta near the town of Gainford. One tank car exploded,; three other burst into flame. It was reportedly the third CN derailment is as many weeks. A month later in November 2013, a 90-car oil train derailed and exploded in Aliceville, Alabama. Twenty cars and two locomotives jumped the tracks and 11 cars burst into flame.

Then in December 2013, a train collision in North Dakota just outside of Fargo caused 18 tank cars to explode and spilled 400,000 gallons of oil onto the tracks.

The most recent disaster was in June 2016 when a 96-car Union Pacific oil train derailed near Mosier  in Oregon.  Fourteen tank cars derailed. Four caught fire and burned explosively.  By chance the accident occurred just outside the town center—otherwise the accident would have been catastrophic [2].

In Canada and the US rail shipments of crude oil land petroleum products have been increasing raipdly. Part of this reason is that pipeline capacity is close to its limit. Building new pipelines is expensive, time consuming–and increasing meets determined community resistance. For the oil companies, moving crude and petroleum products by train is an easy solution.

The International Energy Agency found that there are more accidents with oil trains than pipelines, but pipeline spills are larger.  The risk of a train accident is six times larger than with a pipeline—but pipelines spill three times as much oil [3].

And oil trains are much more likely to explode—especially when carrying more volatile crudes like oil from Bakken.

Track changes

The Canadian government recently announced that the rail track that runs through Lac Megantic will be moved so that oil trains will now bypass the town. The band-aid solution. [4].

But there are dozens of American and Canadian towns where 100-car oil trains rumble though several times a day. These tracks were intended to carry passengers—so they generally pass close to the center of the towns. The frequent freight train and oil train derailments point to technical problems with tracks that were not designed for the dynamic loads.

Transporting oil by train and running them though towns and cities is inherently dangerous.  Particularly when the cargo is volatile and flammable petroleum products. It is an impossible task—both technically and financially– to route all the tracks used by oil trains so that they bypass urban centers.  Oil trains should quite simply be banned.

So this brings us to pipelines.

The pipe dream solution

If moving petroleum by train is banned, should we build more pipelines?

This is what the oil companies want, and what the province of Alberta demands.  But while pipelines may be safer than oil trains, they still carry enormous risks.

On the north American mainland, Canada and the US are crisscrossed with an extensive network of pipelines that carry huge quantities of liquid petroleum products : crude oil and refined products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, and natural gas liquids. The US has the world’s largest pipeline network: more than 200,000 miles of pipelines carrying hydrocarbon liquids, over 300,000 miles of gas transmission lines, and more than 2.1 million miles of gas distribution pipelines.

Pipelines ought to be safer than oil tankers and trains, but accidents still happen—it’s inherent in a fossil fuel supply system that needs to constantly move large quantities of energy-intensive and flammable liquids and gases under high pressure and over long distances.  Tha chart below shows the number of pipeline incidents that occurred in the US from 1997 to 2016.  Since 2002, when for some reason the number of inicidents almost doubled, pipeline incidents have been running at over 600 a year [5].

Pipeline incidents in US since 1998

Tucked away in the data for the year 2010 is the largest inland oil spill in US history. The spill occurred when a pipeline managed by the Canadian energy firm Enbridge carrying diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands ruptured, sending over 800,000 gallons of ‘dilbit’ into the Kalamazoo River near the town of Marshall, Indiana.  The heavy oil spill flowed for 17 hours before Enbridge shut down the pipeline. The diluted bitumen contaminated 40 miles of the river, fouling over 4000 acres of riverside land. In 2016, the cost of the cleanup of the contaminated stretch of the Kalamazoo river was estimated at $1.21 billion [6].

The furore over the Trans Mountain Expansion project (TMX) pipeline proposed by US firm Kinder Morgan highlights a new reality.  But a reality that is being fiercely resisted by the companies that continue to make enormous profits from the extraction, processing, and transport of fossil fuels.

Coal is slowly dying and cannot be resuscitated. Within a decade, petroleum and natural gas will be secondary fuels—relegated to feedstock for the plastics and petrochemical industries. As the massive subsidies for fossil fuels are phased out, and the oil companies are forced to pay their external costs through taxes on carbon, the global production of oil and gas will peak and decline. The modern world becomes almost entirely electric.

In this scenario—which is the only one that will enable a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases and offer a slim chance of achieving the Paris Agreement global warming targets—investing billions of dollars to expand North American and Canadian pipeline capacity is a fool’s errand.  A total waste of money.

The Canadian government has proclaimed that the TMX pipeline is in the national interest. So then why is there such furious resistance to it?  People are not fooled by the propaganda. Pipelines don’t bring jobs, renewable energy does—by the tens of thousands [7].  Coal miners laid off in Kentucky and Wyoming are now building energy storage systems and maintaining wind turbines [8].

Canada doesn’t need more oil pipelines.  It doesn’t need oil trains. It needs an energy policy that recognizes the way the world is changing. The future is electric, powered by renewables. Fossil fuels are the also-rans.


Check out the following:

[1] See: Lac-Megantic runaway train and derailment investigation summary. Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Accessed at

[2] See: Oil train derails in Columbia River Gorge, rally calls for ban on Bomb trains.–1891163987.htm 

[3] See IEA report: Oil medium-term market report 2013. Accessed at

[4] See : Lac Megantic relocating railway line, in the Toronto Star on 11 May 2018.

[5] See the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) website.

[6] See: New price tag for Kalamazoo River oil spill cleanup: Enbridge says $1.21 billion. At:

[7] See: US clean energy jobs surpass fossil fuel employment. At

[8] See: Storage, wind, solar companies are recruiting coal miners for their work ethics and high-tech skills.  At:



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