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Ever since the tragic 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec crude oil rail explosion killed 47 people I have been particularly aware of rail accidents. Or have I?

More crude oil was spilled by rail in 2013 than in the nearly four previous decades, more than 1.15 million gallons.

So maybe it's just that in 2014 they've been hard to avoid. Here are a few:

A report released last week by Oil Change International summarized the size of the potential problem:

Today, one million barrels of crude oil per day is loaded and unloaded on the North American rail network, meaning roughly 135 trains of 100 cars each are moving dangerous crude oil each day through the continent. But if used at full capacity, existing loading and unloading terminals could handle 3.5 times more crude-by-rail traffic and by 2016 that capacity could grow to over 5 times current levels.

So who, or what is to blame?

Obviously more crude oil production (some of which is enabled by fracking) has led to an increased burden on railroads (and trucks, pipelines and boats). So while the percentage of accidents per trip is about the same, the absolute numbers are going up, way up.

But there are other factors at work, namely aging unsafe infrastructure and a lumbering regulatory agency.

What: DOT-111 rail cars aka Bomb Trains have recently become the focus of the oil-by-rail problem. The DOT-111 Reader sums up the problem:

What makes these 78,000 tankers so unsafe?

  • Thin skins. Upon derailment, the tanks quite often rupture causing massive spills and explosions.
  • No head shields. Shields at both ends of the tank car would help prevent puncturing from collisions with adjacent rail cars.
  • Not enough protection for fittings and valves. Tank cars have fittings and valves that have just a thin shield around them. Quite often in derailments, these fittings and valves are sheered off.
  • No PRD’s – Pressure Relief Devices to prevent BLEVEs. (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion)

Rachel Maddow even reported on them:

Activists, concerned homeowners and the media aren't the only ones who see the problem. Which brings us to the Who.

Who: The first place my finger went wagging was the Association of American Railroads. But as it turns out, they also think this is a problem. In fact, they submitted comments and recommendations to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) advanced notice of a proposed rulemaking “pressing for improved federal tank car regulations by requiring all tank cars used to transport flammable liquids to be retrofitted or phased out, and new cars built to more stringent standards.”

PHMSA is the federal agency responsible for regulating tank-car safety and so far they've been too slow to act. The notice of a proposed rulemaking has yet to be filed, even though the DOT said they would push their rules forward after Canada issued new rules in late April.

That brings us to where

And it very well might be your backyard, according to a new map released with the report from Oil Change International. While those who live with oil and gas development already in their backyards won't be shocked, oil by rail has the potential to increase risk for people far from development.

But of course, people are pushing back. For example, DC Safe Rail made a powerful presentation to DC Mayor Gray showing how a Lac-Mégantic-like disaster could impact the DC neighborhood (and Congress buildings) that surround the railroad.

The Future

Unfortunately the end is not in sight, and this may just be the beginning. Just this month, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the US is considering lifting a decades-old ban on crude oil exports. This would lock us into overseas contracts and raise demand, increasing the need for more transport and decreasing the political and financial will to avoid dangerous options like bomb trains.

The options (mainly trucks, boats and pipelines) for transporting crude oil leave much to be desired. An analysis by Forbes ranks for 'worse':

Truck worse than train worse than pipeline worse than boat (Oilprice.com). But that’s only for human death and property destruction. For the normalized amount of oil spilled, it’s truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat (Congressional Research Service). Different yet again is for environmental impact (dominated by impact to aquatic habitat), where it’s boat worse than pipeline worse than truck worse than rail.

… but is this really what we desire? Dreaming of a renewable energy future full of sun spills and clean air explosions.