Canada moves to put tougher limits on dangerous oil trains

Living on Earth

Emergency personnel examine the wreckage of a train derailment near Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, February 13, 2014. The 120-car Norfolk Southern Corp train carrying heavy Canadian crude oil derailed and spilled in western Pennsylvania.

Jason Cohn/Reuters

 In Lynchburg, Virginia, on April 30, a train carrying crude oil derailed, and some of the rail cars exploded into a ball of fire, and then fell into the James River.

This was not an isolated incident.

A number of explosive train derailments, including the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 44 people, have raised the alarm about the safety of shipping oil by rail.

The oil now gushing from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the Alberta Tar Sands has overwhelmed pipeline capacity, and millions of gallons now ride the rails, often in older tanker cars vulnerable to rupture. 

Increased alarm and public pressure have now pushed Canada to act.

New rules announced last week by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt cover three basic areas, according to Kim Mackrael, reporter for the Globe and Mail based in Ottawa. “They apply to the structure of the cars that commonly carry the oil by rail; the emergency plans that come into play if an accident occurs; and the risk analysis that railways are supposed to use to look at how risky it is to carry a particularly dangerous good by rail,” Mackrael says. 

The first rule mandates that within two to three years, companies can no longer carry crude oil through Canada in rail cars built before 2011.

“The cars that are normally used to carry crude oil are called DOT-111's,” Mackrael explains. “These cars have been around for a long time. Many of the [cars] that are on the tracks right now date back to the 1970s.”

The problem with these cars, Mackrael says, is that before October, 2011 they were built with "insufficient lining, external shields and venting to protect against punctures and gas buildups." Without these additional safety features, rails cars can explode more easily or corrode on the inside from the oil they are carrying. Since 2011, the industry has been making these cars to a higher standard, but the new cars are only a fraction of the ones currently in use.  

The second rule, regarding emergency response plans in the event of an accident, fills a serious regulatory gap.

“Until the accident in Lac-Megantic, oil wasn’t really considered to be explosive or dangerous to that level,” explains Mackrael. “These emergency plans exist[ed] for other dangerous goods, but never for oil.”

Under the new rule, companies who import oil will for the first time have to come up with emergency plans and make sure that municipalities are prepared to respond to an accident. (Just last week, the U.S Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring the same of U.S. carriers.)

As regards improved risk analysis, the Canadian rules came in response to discussions that have been happening in the United States, says Mackrael. Recently, she explains, railways and the U.S. Department of Transportation came to a voluntary agreement that railways would perform a better risk analysis of routes carrying dangerous goods. Carriers in the U.S. have also been asked to look into whether safer routes exist for carrying crude oil.

In Canada, Mackrael says, the rules don’t go quite that far, in part because of a recognition that there aren’t many alternative routes available.

“[I]n Canada, the question is more about looking at the possible risks of going through big communities [or near] water supplies — that sort of thing,” says Mackrael. “Right now the discussion is around slowing down trains when going through higher-risk areas.”

Mackrael says the response to the new rules from the oil industry has been overall “relatively positive.”

“I think there’s some recognition that this was a pretty massive disaster and recognition that change is coming,” she says. At the same time, the industry has expressed concern about the changes for the DOT-111s, largely because of the tight timeline.

Three years may sound to many like too long for unsafe cars with loads of explosive crude oil to remain on the rails, but the industry feels three years is not enough time to build or retrofit older cars.

There are a couple of other complications. If the United States doesn’t require the same changes to the DOT-111’s, the result might simply be that the more dangerous cars are  sent to the U.S., while the newer cars get shipped to Canada. Then again, if the United States does make the same rule, it could become more difficult for the manufacturers to supply the industry with enough of the newer cars to keep oil moving at its current pace.

So far, the U.S. has only “urged,” not required, the railroads to begin using the newer, safer rail cars.

The recent accidents and the spike in public alarm and government action raise questions about the future of shipping oil by rail.

Many Canadian cities, including Lac-Megantic, were built because of the railroads, says Mackrael. The mayor of Lac-Megantic acknowledged that the city wouldn’t exist if the railroad hadn’t been built there.

“At this point, Mackrael says,“as we become...more aware about the dangers of the goods that are going through, I think a lot of communities and a lot people are really thinking about what that reality means if a serious accident happens.”

“You do have railways hauling a massive amount of oil that is, particularly in the case of the Bakken [oil], very volatile, very prone to exploding. I hope we don’t see any more of these, but we certainly haven’t eliminated all the risk on this.”  

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