They've been called pipelines by rail, virtual pipelines and — due to their tendency to explode in a derailment — they've also been called bomb trains. Oil trains are huge, black trains, often with 100 tanker cars or more, all laden with crude oil. And these exploding machines are crisscrossing all of North America with increasing frequency.
In fact, the volume of crude oil shipped by rail in the United States grew more than 40-fold between 2008 and 2013. Current trends point to even more oil-by-rail transport throughout the United States and Canada in the coming years.
Oil trains are a threat to public safety, clean water and sensitive species — and they're as sure a path to climate disaster as oil pipelines, fracking and offshore drilling. Despite a recent series of catastrophic derailments, including a fiery train wreck that occurred at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013 — killing 47 people and burning up a large proportion of the small town's business district — oil trains continue to roll out of the northern plains and western Canada, laden with cargoes dangerous to our personal, community and environmental health. Only public outcry is beginning to compel greater governmental attention to the threat of oil trains and vastly greater amounts of crude oil being moved around our country.
Here's one measure of how dramatic the increase in oil train traffic, and dangerous spills, has become: The amount of crude oil spilled from trains in 2013 was equal to all the crude oil spilled from rail transport in the previous 40 years.
Oil trains have been appearing with ever-greater frequency on tracks and at rail terminals all around the country, usually without public notification, public involvement or even government review. They most often go right through the centers of towns and cities, communities as big as Albany, Minneapolis and Seattle. They also parallel important waterways and other sources of drinking water, such as Lake Champlain and the Hudson and Columbia rivers. They supply East and West coast refineries, and after they reach their coastal destinations, the crude they carry may then be loaded on barges or tanker vessels — endangering estuaries, bays and other coastal environments.
So far the majority of oil traveling by rail is called "Bakken crude," from the fracked shale fields of North Dakota and Montana. However, tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, is also being transported on trains with increasing frequency. Bakken oil is "light" crude, and extremely flammable — more flammable than dozens of other types of crudes from around the world. This fact has only come become public in the wake of a series of explosive derailments.
Tar sands crude is "heavy": It is not as flammable as light crude, but it does sink straight to the bottom of any water body it's spilled into — which is detrimental for any species living in that water. It may also contain toxic "diluents" that are mixed with the viscous tar sands in order to make it more fluid. Spills of heavy, "sinking" crude, like tar sands oil, are notoriously difficult and expensive to clean up, and in fact, the notion of cleaning up a tar sands spill, especially in water, is seriously misleading — since it's actually near impossible. The amount of heavy oil removed after a spill is usually 5 percent or less.
One of the busiest oil train hubs in the country is in Albany, New York, on the Hudson River. Between the beginning of 2012 and the end of 2013, the amount of crude oil transported through Albany went from essentially none to more than 1 billion gallons annually. The state of New York has granted a permitted capacity of 2.8 billion gallons per year; it has also given approval to an Albany oil-heating facility that would facilitate the transport of heavy (tar sands) crude. The dramatic escalation of crude oil transport through New York threatens the Hudson River and more than a dozen federally protected endangered species. It also puts at risk the health of a nationally historic and ecologically significant waterway — the Hudson — which is only recently recovering from a decades-long legacy of PCB pollution.
The Center's work against oil trains includes a call to Congress for a moratorium on rail transport of crude oil in the Northeast, at least until safety and environmental concerns are effectively addressed. We've also filed a notice of intent to sue the federal government over its inadequate oil-spill response plan for the Hudson River and New York Bay. We're part of a coalition of groups fighting the expansion of oil transportation along the Hudson. Finally, we're in the midst of an ongoing investigation into oil transport by trains in other places in the Northeast, which — just like any method of oil transport — is putting other habitats and species at risk from North America's fossil fuel energy boom.