The tragic loss of lives in a Canadian border town to a fireball of burning crude oil is sure to ramp up debate about how petroleum products should be moved.
One sure talking point is that oil is moved more safely by pipeline than rail – a lynchpin for proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline. But Saturday’s accident should renew focus on just how safe those long black oil tankers are in a crash.
Pipeline spills resulted in average releases of more than 19,000 gallons per incident between 2005 and 2009. Tank cars averaged just less than 1,700.
Since October 2011, the Association of American Railroads has required tanker makers to make new cars with heavier steel, protective shields and better covers over fittings.
But the industry has rejected as too costly calls to retrofit tens of thousands of older tankers.
Crude oil isn’t going to stop riding the rails to refineries. Although pipelines still move the bulk of crude oil, trains are carrying 10 times more than they were just five years ago.
Oil producers, railroads and refiners are all hurrying to add terminals and expand tanker fleets to catch all the crude oil running out of the Great Plains. Some analysts speculate that even if Keystone is never approved, rail eventually will be able to carry all the shale and tar sands crude the region can produce.
If that’s the case, people living along the lines can only hope the tankers running through their towns meet the highest standards.