The small lakeside town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada was shaken Saturday when an oil-laden train bound for a Saint John refinery derailed and exploded, leaving at least 13 dead and dozens unaccounted for. The Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway train, with 72 cars of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken basin, was left unattended by its conductor and rolled downhill, blowing a hole in downtown Lac-Mégantic.
The explosion near the border of Maine highlighted the debate about what mode of transportation is safest and most economical for carrying crude oil from North Dakota and northern Alberta’s oil sands. Proponents of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline may now be bolstered by arguing that pipelines are safer and more fuel-efficient than trains.
U.S. railroads are already carrying more than 1 million barrels of crude oil a day.
The State Department said in its recent environmental impact statement that if a permit
Valero, the nation’s largest oil refiner, has ordered 5,300 rail tank cars and would be a major customer of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Over the past two years, the increase in crude oil shipped by rail in the United States has bolstered the fortunes of railroads, many of which have seen coal shipments drop substantially. Canada’s railroads are experiencing the same boom now. The Canadian Railway Association estimates that companies will ship as many as 140,000 tanker cars of crude oil on Canada’s tracks this year — up from 500 carloads in 2009.
From 2002 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled 2,268 barrels of crude oil, according to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration data cited by the AAR. Photos of Lac-Mégantic showed crumpled tank cars, each carrying 600 to 700 barrels. Canadian officials said oil had spilled in town and into the lake. (Wash Post, 7/8/2013)