Oil production in North America is booming. And the spills are multiplying

Living on Earth
Picture taken from a Sûreté du Québec helicopter of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment

Oil spills happen wherever oil is drilled or transported: pipelines, rail cars, drilling platforms, ships, barges — everywhere. Some are big, most are small.

But when they're big, they're really, really big.

Exactly 25 years to the day after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24 of this year an oil barge off the Texas coast was hit by another ship and spilled as much as 168,000 gallons of bunker fuel into Galveston Bay. In the same week, an oil pipeline leaked into a nature reserve in Ohio and a BP refinery spilled hundreds of gallons of crude into Lake Michigan.

Lorne Stockman, the research director at Oil Change International, says this is a great concern.

“Oil is an extremely toxic substance,” Stockman explains. “It’s full of compounds, which can make you very sick. It’s full of compounds that will kill plant life and kill wildlife. It’s very difficult to clean up. As we’ve seen with the Exxon Valdez spill: 25 years on, the oil is still not gone from Prince William Sound. ... It’s an extremely persistent pollutant in the environment.”

Stockman says aging infrastructure and lax regulation are accelerating the problem. Many of the crude oil pipelines in the US were built in the 1950s and 60s. Not only are the pipelines aging, it isn’t at all clear whether they were designed to carry the new kind of crude that is being extracted in the US and Canada. The oil that comes from the tar sands in Alberta is thicker than a traditional liquid crude oil, Stockman explains.

"It’s not clear that these pipelines can handle the increases in pressure that increasing the capacity involves,” he adds.

Pipelines are not the only problem. Because the oil boom in North America is producing more oil than the pipelines can handle, the oil producers are increasingly turning to rail to transport it. This may be efficient for the industry, but it poses serious dangers to the communities through which the trains pass.

When a train crashed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July, 47 people were killed and 30 buildings were destroyed in the blaze. That same train passed through the city of Chicago on its way to Canada and was scheduled to pass through Toronto a few days later. A derailment that happens near a small town in Quebec could happen in a densely populated city, too.

Before the crash, says Stockman, there were few, if any, specific rules, in Canada or the US, to make sure that train was safe. 

“That’s really characteristic of the oil boom," he says. "The regulators are often several steps behind what’s going on in the industry, and we don’t see a discussion of safety and the regulations that we need until after some kind of disaster has happened.”

Calling the rail cars currently being used an "unacceptable public risk," the National Transportation Safety Board recently issued new recommendations to reduce the risk of rail accidents, but it is unclear how effective these new recommendations will be, how well they can be enforced or how quickly they can be put in place.

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