Why you may yet read by candlelight

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, June 19, 2014

The debate over the safety of handling crude oil by rail has become frustrating and almost pointless. Yes, tank cars that carry oil could be made more crashworthy, that is, if the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration would get off its duff and tell tank car owners what changes it wants. A year after the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Que., that killed 47 people, we’re still waiting. Yes, there are a couple of other measures that would make a marginal difference. But if you’re asking whether railroads will ever make their trains absolutely, totally safe and derailment-free, the answer is no, of course not. So what’s this all about?

Almost everything you do in life comes with risk. When you shave, you risk a cut. When you eat, you risk indigestion or worse. In 2012, 33,561 people died in roadway accidents, a number that to me seems horrifying. And I tense up every time a jetliner I’m in takes off and lands. Still, nobody suggests that you not shave or eat or drive or fly. Instead, we try to make all these activities safer. For instance, railroads are investing $13 billion over a period of years to install positive train control, which will prevent trains from passing red signals or violating speed limits, even temporary slow orders.

But in the public debate, rational thought doesn’t seem to matter. I hate to pick on Sara Foss, a columnist for the Daily Gazette of Schenectady, N.Y., because she had nice things to say about a feature story I wrote this year. On the other hand, in a blog of hers she so well illustrates the problem that I cannot help myself. First, she asks the wrong question: “Can transporting oil by rail ever truly be made safe?” Truly? It’s the wrong question because absolute safety is just as impossible on a railroad as it is on the highway and in the air. Then for an answer to her pointless question, Sara goes, inexplicitly, to Sandy Steubing, a member of People of Albany United for Safe Energy, or PAUSE. It’s like asking Barack Obama whether George W. Bush will go down as one of our greatest presidents. As if on cue, Steubing demands a moratorium on shipping crude oil via both rail and pipeline so that the U.S. can “aggressively switch to renewable forms of energy.” And Sara agrees with him, perhaps mindless of the shortage of gasoline that will result.

Give Sandy Steubing credit for at least being honest. Too many others in the environmental movement are disingenuous. Told that absolute safety for crude by rail is unachievable, they say then just stop the activity. It’s a mindset that if applied the same way to the other forms of transportation would have us all reduced to riding bicycles, living in caves, and reading by candlelight. The fact of the matter is that these people don’t want the oil to come out of the ground, period. But they don’t want to say that aloud.           

It’s not just the environmentalists, either. The oil industry denies against all evidence that there is anything unusually volatile about light sweet crude oil from North Dakota and says it’s all a railroad problem. And the pipeline and environmental people talk right past each other, too (while railroads walk off with the business, I might add).

On that last note, here’s another example of the mindlessness of it all. Reported the New York Times in early June: “If the Keystone XL pipeline is not built — and more oil from the Canadian oil sands is moved by rail — there could be hundreds more deaths and thousands more injuries than expected over the course of a decade, according to an updated State Department analysis.” Specifically, State predicts 434 deaths and 2,947 injuries over a decade. The Times reporter got reactions from a TransCanada spokesman (“The safest, most environmentally responsible way to move oil to the markets where they are needed is a pipeline”) and from an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation (“Today’s correction further highlights the extreme dangers to people and wildlife posed by climate-disrupting tar sands oil.”). But nobody from the Times sought comment from the railroad industry.           

It took an enterprising young reporter for the McClatchy Newspapers, Curtis Tate, to reveal that State’s estimates had nothing to do with the dangers of hauling crude oil by rail—nothing whatever. The stats were simply lifted from the Federal Railroad Administration web site and represent the casualties per million ton miles of freight of any kind handled during 2002-2012 and extrapolated over the next decade. Most of those casualties probably involved grade crossing accidents and incidents having to do with trespassers. On top of that, the rate of accidents and injuries on railroads has declined by almost half during the past decade, so even these statistics are exaggerated.

Let me present a few statistics of my own. A couple of months ago I did some back-of-envelope calculations, consulted FRA safety stats and concluded that over a year’s time, we will probably have 11 crude oil train incidents per year — a statistical probability, in other words, at the rate that oil is being hauled by rail today. Only half would involve loaded trains, obviously. So are five or six derailments per year, minor or not minor (because who knows?), a risk this nation can take and work around? Before you answer no, let me remind you of two other statistics. They are the number of people in the U.S. killed and injured the past year in crude oil derailments. Those numbers are zero and zero.

So if I seem impatient with the public dialogue, at least you now know why.—Fred W. Frailey

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