NEW YORK — A fiery and fatal train derailment earlier this month in Quebec, near the Maine border, highlighted the danger of moving oil by rail, a practice that has grown exponentially as a result of the oil boom and will continue to expand, experts say.
This year, more trains carrying crude will chug across North America than ever before — nearly 1,400 carloads a day. In 2009, there were just 31 carloads a day.
U.S. and Canadian drillers are producing oil faster than new pipelines can be built. As a result, trains have become an unexpected yet vital way to move this bounty of energy from the continent's midsection to refineries along the coasts. Not since the dawn of the petroleum age, when John D. Rockefeller clashed with railroad barons, have trains been so important to the oil market.
Since the July 6 tragedy in Lac-Megantic, where a runaway train carrying 72 carloads of crude derailed and killed 50 people, there have been calls for tougher regulations, stronger rail cars and more pipelines.
But experts say the oil industry's growing reliance on trains won't be derailed anytime soon. Unless new pipelines are built, there's just no other way to get vast amounts of oil from North Dakota and Rocky Mountain states to refineries along the coasts, which are eager for cheaper, homegrown alternatives to imports brought in by boat.
“Stopping crude by rail would be tantamount to stopping oil production in a lot of the places it is now being produced,” says Michael Levi, who heads the Council on Foreign Relations' program on energy security and climate change.
Even safety experts worried about the dangers of shipping oil by rail acknowledge that the safety record of railroads is good — and improving. The scope of the Lac-Megantic disaster, which is still under investigation, appears to have been the result of uniquely bad circumstances, these experts say.
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