A new analysis of government data shows that more oil was spilled from trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in every year between 1975 and 2012 combined. Railcars released more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil last year, reports McClatchy's Curtis Tate, while only a combined 800,000 gallons were spilled in the previous 38 years.
The analysis used data from the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and does not include the deadly July 6 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that released an estimated 1.58 million gallons of oil and killed 47 people.
Questions have arisen about the safety of transporting oil by rail, as the number of "mobile pipeline" trains has increased relative to an oil production boom in the central U.S. in recent years. Much of this boom (and the source of the crude oil in many of the recent oil train spills) is centered around North Dakota and the Bakken formation. Ten percent of all U.S. oil production now comes from this 200,000-square mile rock formation, which also underlies parts of Montana, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
North Dakota currently produces several hundred thousand barrels of oil daily, exceeding the capacity of the existing pipeline infrastructure. This -- along with producers' preference for selling the oil on the east and west coasts, which are largely inaccessible by most pipelines but where the oil fetches a higher price -- has led to a surge in oil-by-rail shipment. The railroad industry shipped only 9,500 carloads of crude oil in 2008. That rose to 234,000 by 2012 and continues to grow.
Despite high-profile oil train derailments in North Dakota and Alabama, among others, McClatchy's analysis of the oil spilled from tank cars in 2013, as a share of the total volume of oil shipped by rail in the U.S. that year, jibes with the railroad industry's stated 99.99 percent safety record.
Oil train crashes may be statistically infrequent, but the shipment of Bakken crude presents one notable challenge. The PHMSA announced on Jan. 2 that the crude oil being transported from the region "may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil."
Regulators have begun to pay increased attention to oil train safety and shipping practices in recent months, although federal investigators have known about oil train safety issues, like overweight and mislabeled railcars coming from the Bakken formation, since at least the fall of 2011.
Following a closed-door meeting with federal regulators last week, the railroad industry agreed to implement voluntary safety improvements over the next month. "The industry, if they are motivated, can undertake preventative steps that will enhance the safety of the movement of these materials across the country," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, according to the Associated Press.