California Braces for Explosion of Oil by Rail Shipments

The mountains and cities of California are about to see an explosion in the number of trains carrying fracked Bakken crude oil through the state. And according to a report (pdf) released on Tuesday, both the federal government and industry have done little to protect citizens from the “potentially serious risks” of such oil transport.

Further, despite requests from state energy officials, railway companies have provided “limited data” to the state and have “vehemently resisted” sharing information regarding oil shipments with the public, claiming that such knowledge is a “trade secret,” the Sacramento Bee reported on Monday.

The amount of crude oil by rail imported to California’s refineries is set to increase from 1 percent of total imports in 2013 to 25 percent, or 150 million barrels, by 2016, according to state energy officials.

This unprecedented rise reflects a growing national trend which has been fueled by the application of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Bakken oil shale as well as by President Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy—which has increased fossil fuel development across North America, including from unconventional sources.

Highlighting the risks posed by this boom, a report by the California Interagency Rail Safety Working Group, commissioned by Governor Jerry Brown, has found that “current regulations and industry practices are not adequate” to protect citizens in light of the push from both the fossil fuel industry and federal and state governments.


As the number of shipments has increased, so has the number of accidents. According to the government task force, more crude oil by volume was spilled in rail incidents in 2013 than was spilled in the nearly four decades prior. And those incidents involving Bakken crude have been “particularly devastating,” notes the report—particularly the July 2013 accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 63 tank cars exploded in the town center killing 47 people.

A recent report by the watchdog group Oil Change International highlights the dangers inherent in the expansion of the crude-by-rail industry. The report notes, however, that as crude-by-rail has become an increasingly dangerous option, transport by pipeline is equally fraught and that the false debate between the two ought to be shelved in order to make room for more sustainable energy development.

In California, trains transporting Bakken crude are expected to bisect some of the state’s most densely populated areas, as well as some of the most ecologically sensitive areas, traveling along the Feather River or Donner Pass to the Bay Area, the Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield, or into Los Angeles.

The California task force’s report concludes that federal initiatives do not “go far enough to address the risks of increased oil by rail transport,” and it recommends strengthening federal requirements, expediting the industry’s tank car upgrades, and planning for better emergency response.

“This is what the ‘All of the Above Energy Strategy’ looks like,” said Lorne Stockman, research director of Oil Change International and author of their report, “a runaway train headed straight for North American communities.”

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