Sunday, July 14, 2013

What the Quebec train wreck should and should not suggest about the larger oil discussion

The train wreck in Quebec is one of those stories that just gets sadder. I spend all day at work with my head in these things, so I have little conception how big a story it is outside of the business world.

To recap: A 73-car train carrying 72 cars full of crude oil (about 30,000 gallons each, or 715 barrels) broke loose from its braking system late last Friday night and travelled several miles as it gathered speed going downhill. It was unmanned - quite literally a runaway train - and at a bend in the track near the small town of Lac-Mégantic, it derailed. At least five cars exploded, sending a massive fireball into the night sky, and burning or smoldering for days after. This all happened in the center of the town of around 6000, right in front of a bar that was packed for the weekend. Reports said a band had just wrapped their set and people were stepping outside for a smoke break, only to see this runaway train barreling towards them. Some ran, others tried to start their cars and drive away. The explosion probably killed 50 people, but only 33 have been confirmed dead so far. Some are likely never going to be recovered or identified because they were vaporized in the blaze.

I can't imagine what this would be like for the residents of Lac-Mégantic. In a town that small, everyone is almost certain to know one of the victims, living or dead. Thirty buildings were obliterated, including the public library. It's a tragedy beyond the pale.

The implications of this catastrophe stretch far and wide, and stepping back from the devastation a bit, a vexing debate comes into focus. A massive spike in oil production in the US and Canada has strained the existing pipeline capacity, which has required companies producing oil to find new ways of getting their product to market. They have, in fact, turned to quite an old technology: rail. Crude shipments by train have shot up by more than 40% in the US from a year ago and 24% in Canada. That's good for an old school industry, but, it would seem, bad for safety.

In terms of frequency of spills and incidents per mile, transporting crude by rail is far less safe than transporting it by pipeline. In the past several months there have been at least four incidents (before the most recent) where a train carrying crude derailed and spilled. Of course, one major pipeline incident kind of wiped out a lot of the argument. ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas, ruptured and spilled some 5000 barrels of oil and devastated a town. (There were no fatalities, however.)

Examining the worst case scenario of the two methods - Mayflower for pipelines and Lac-Mégantic for rail - the safety verdict almost has to fall on the side of pipelines. Most of the time when oil spill from a derailed train car (or a compromised bridge, which nearly happened during the recent floods in Alberta, thought it wasn't crude oil per se), it's only a few barrels, maybe a couple hundred. But it happens more frequently, and since trains run often through populated areas, the threat to human life would seem higher. Pipelines spill less frequently, but when they do, the spill volume is almost always higher, but the physical danger is less acute (natural gas pipelines or compression stations do explode more often than they should, and that's bad. I am also not including incidents like the one a few years ago in San Bruno, CA, because that would be akin to comparing Mayflower or Lac-Mégantic to a gas station blowing up while filling a car).

Both these incidents, as any disaster, come with several caveats. In Lac-Mégantic, a criminal investigation is focusing on the engineer of the train who may have not set enough hand brakes to prevent this very thing from happening before he went to bed at a nearby hotel for the night. The Pegasus pipeline that runs through Mayflower is more than 60 years old and failed due to defects in the original (outdated) welding technique. Neither of these incidents should have happened, and could have been prevented if the proper precautions were taken.

So, everyone asked in the immediate aftermath of Lac-Mégantic, what does this mean for the Keystone XL pipeline? Probably not much, in the end. It would seem to play into the rhetoric of the pro-pipeline crowd, who say Keystone will be a state-of-the-art transporter that poses no environmental or human danger (though the TransCanada CEO, to his credit, pointedly insisted that the train wreck was not good news for anybody). The anti-oil folks point to the tragedy as further evidence that all forms of oil transport and extraction are dangerous and should be abolished (in favor of what, exactly, is the tough question).

Ultimately, I think this will just go down as an utterly devastating tale of human failure. It was one of the worst transportation disasters of any kind in Canadian history. It raises impossible questions of why and how that simply will never have a satisfactory answer. I hope, if nothing else, authorities come down hard on the people and companies responsible - both in Quebec and Arkansas - and send a message that when you are handling inherently dangerous materials, failure to properly look after them will draw severe consequences. But I'm not holding my breath...


Matthew Frink said...

So um, how is this argument holding up? Seems like we have another train accident weekly.

Luke Johnson said...

If you are referring to the argument that pipelines are a safer mode of transport than trains, the second half of your comment seems to confirm that. Train wrecks are more frequent, and potentially dangerous, but they also don't spill as much oil, most of the time. I think pipelines still win on safety. but new regulations coming down the, um, pipeline, that will regulate oil-laden trains could improve their safety performance by making them less likely to blow up. On the other hand, oil companies in North Dakota have not been terribly forthcoming with data that would help make train transport even safer. North Dakota also getting more pipelines, but not for a couple of years, so about 700,000 barrels per day of crude will continue to leave the state via train...