As railroads replace pipelines

Life felt simpler when North Dakota was known primarily for ice fishing, Lawrence Welk and the Norsk Hostfest in Minot. Today, crude oil beneath the Bakken formation in western North Dakota has rejuvenated the state’s economy and driven down unemployment to the lowest in the country at 3.1 percent.

The trouble with Bakken crude (disregard its carbon footprint and the mess of hydraulic fracking for now) is that it’s highly flammable. The 2013 derailment of an oil train in Quebec and attendant inferno that killed 47 people brought into focus the perils of rail transport, particularly with older “DOT-111” tank cars. These aging carriers — around 80,000 are in use — are more likely to puncture than newer tank cars with sturdier hulls.

Bakken crude is an everyday feature of the Northwest landscape. Washington is the fifth-largest refining state in the U.S.

Shipments of Bakken crude into the Pacific Northwest began with zero fanfare two years ago, the Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place writes in an institute report, “The Northwest’s Pipeline By Rails.”

”So sudden was the region’s oil boom that companies found themselves with scant infrastructure,” de Place writes. “Railways seized the opportunity to play a role traditionally reserved for pipelines: moving large volumes of crude oil. The rail industry embarked on a breakneck campaign of building tanker cars as refineries and ports began hatching plans to receive the product from trains.”

Last week, at a hearing on rail safety before a Senate subcommittee, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, pushed for better federal oversight. The rail-industry’s non-compulsory safety agreement throws the question into relief.

“When you have a voluntary system, not everybody complies with it; what do you do about that?” Cantwell asked.

Sixty percent of aging tank cars will be phased out by the end of 2015, industry representatives said. Is that fast enough, while Bakken crude DOT-111 cars rumble through major population centers, from Spokane to Seattle?

“We’ve gone from four years ago — having basically nothing on rail by crude — to now having something like 408,000 carloads of crude,” Cantwell said. “Knowing when those DOT-111 cars are going to be off those rails — these cars that the National Transportation Safety Board has already said are unacceptable — this is a key issue for me and for my state.”

Standards to improve the DOT-111 cars are more than a year behind schedule, according to regulators. That needs to be stepped up, and teeth added to federal measures to hold the rail industry accountable. No excuses, no delays.