The big North Dakota derailment raises little concern among residents of nearby Casselton, despite flames over a hundred feet high and thick plumes of oily smoke. A BNSF crude oil train collided with a derailed soy bean train just miles outside of Casselton, North Dakota, on Monday afternoon, igniting a dozen tanker cars. Miraculously, no injuries have been reported. Many have called for more stringent safety protocols, but opinions are divided between rail and pipe line crude transport. Although both methods have fairly low spill rates, the real difference between the two is where the impact of an accident is felt.
With train shipments of crude oil 67 percent higher than last year, more trains on the rails are filled with crude oil than in the last hundred years. Although railways are very safe in between towns or in sparsely populated areas, like North Dakota, their flaw is when they must go through populated areas. As the derailment in Lac Megantic showed, there is a lot to lose when a train explodes in a town. That the big North Dakota derailment raises little concern shows that humans are only worried about damage that specifically affects them.
Conversely, pipelines are more likely to run through remote areas and generally do not come near many towns or settlements. However, this means that if there is a leak it may be harder to reach to repair it, such as in 2010 when an Enbridge pipe line burst and leaked more than 23,000 barrels of crude oil into the Kalamazoo river in Michigan. Spills and leaks are rare with both methods, so the question becomes where the damage caused by an accident should fall: humans or nature.
With environmentalists shouting that nature must be protected and human rights watch dogs calling the recent string of explosive derailments more than enough evidence to ban train shipments, the North Dakota derailment is unlikely to cause things to change dramatically. New provisions for rail safety are in the works, and safer, more modern tanker cars are being introduced in a bid to reduce the impact of future accidents.
As things stand, the big North Dakota derailment raises little concern, even among residents of Casselton who stayed behind after 2,300 residents voluntarily evacuated. Shifting winds blew dense black smoke towards the town, causing health and environmental concerns. Despite this, even residents whose homes are less than two blocks away from the railroad tracks say the train accident isn’t enough reason to slow down on oil shipping by rail and that the accident is no worse than a car crash. As with all protests and debates about oil and how to get it, how to ship it, and how to use it, production is not going to slow down. With extraction levels at the Bakken shale oil deposits hitting new levels of efficiency, more product is produced than ever before, meaning there are tons of oil needing to move right away. With no time to build a pipeline and many production centers isolated in remote areas, experts insist that train transport is the way to go.
By Daniel O’Brien