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Opinion: Congress treads too carefully on oil train threat
Opinion: Congress treads too carefully on oil train threat

The House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials held a hearing Wednesday, acknowledging mounting safety concerns surrounding the sudden increase in transport of highly explosive crude oil by rail, but failed to push for a ban on unsafe tanker cars or greater transparency about when and where the oil is being transported.

In the wake of several fiery accidents, including an oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people, the Center for Biological Diversity has called for a moratorium on crudeby rail shipments in the Northeast and asked Congress to investigate the mounting threats to people and the environment.

Right now, the reality is that tens of thousands of thin-walled tanker cars laden with this highly flammable oil are rumbling through towns and cities across the United States, and the oil industry is looking to further expand its rail operations. Americans who face this risk every day have a right to immediate safety improvements and greater transparency, not vague promises.

In recent weeks, the oil and rail industries and federal government have announced various voluntary measures, including improving the labeling of crude oil cargos, increasing the number of sturdier, more leak-resistant tanker cars in use, and expanding the rail industry’s emergency response planning in response to public concern over the increasing number of derailments and oil spills in the last year.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of North Dakota oil, published earlier this week, underscored the unprecedented dangers posed by this growing form of oil transportation.

In a study of 86 different crude oils from around the world, North Dakota crude, from a geologic formation referred to as Bakken shale, contained several times more combustible gases than other oils tested.

At the same time, controversial Alberta tar sands oil is also increasingly being transported by rail in the United States. Though not explosive, this heavy form of crude is extremely difficult and expensive to clean up when spilled, especially in waterways.

These incidents make clear that there is no “safe” way to transport oil — whether by rail, pipeline, ship or other means — and, even if there were, burning more and more oil will only worsen the climate crisis.

The volume of crude oil shipped by rail in the United States increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013 — a more than 40-fold rise.

Proposals to expand or build new rail terminal facilities for crude oil have popped up around the country as the oil industry looks for additional ways to ship its product, whether to North American refineries or, in the case of tar sands oil, to foreign markets.

These projects, including current rail terminal proposals in California’s Bay Area, Albany, N.Y., and Vancouver, Wash., have prompted public outcry over safety issues, environmental justice concerns, spill potential, impacts on local habitats and wildlife and climate change.

MOLLIE MATTESON is a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit conservation organization.

Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 (Archive on Friday, March 21, 2014)
Posted by Jym St. Pierre   Contributed by Jym St. Pierre

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