It's Not An Oil Problem, It's A Rail Car Problem


crudevsethanolA spate of often fiery and sometimes explosive oil train derailments in the US and Canada has turned into an argument against oil development. Because there is a political movement dedicated to ending the production, transportation and use of oil and the train derailments fit their narrative

But a SAB reader in the state legislature forwarded me a scan of a graph from the Bismarck Tribune, published in the paper’s April 24th issue, comparing oil by rail shipments to ethanol shipments. As you can see to the right, until just recently there were far more rail cars carrying ethanol than oil (the graph was created by the Associated Press based on data from the American Association of Railroads and the Renewable Fuels Association).

So why does this matter? Well, it turns out that before fiery oil train derailments were making national headlines we had fiery ethanol trail derailments.

Like this one in Ohio from 2012:

Exploding freight cars full of ethanol made for a dramatic early morning scene in Ohio’s capital on Wednesday, but officials said the train derailment that led to a hurried evacuation of an urban neighborhood could have been much worse.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a 12-person team to investigate the derailment on the Norfolk Southern Corp. tracks, which led to spectacular explosions and the burning of three tank cars each carrying 30,000 gallons of ethanol.

And this one in Illinois in 2011:

Explosions shook the north-central Illinois village of Tiskilwa early Friday when a freight train loaded with highly flammable ethanol crashed and ignited, sending bright orange flames jetting skyward.

Capt. Steve Haywood of the Ottawa Fire Department said the train’s tanker cars were shipping ethanol and other materials for Decatur-based corn processor Archer Daniels Midland Co. when it derailed around 2 a.m. At least six tanker cars burned, he said. No injuries were reported.

“It was the tallest thing in town,” 19-year-old Dylan Carlson said of the flames, which he recorded from his home about four blocks away.

I could cite more examples, but I think you get the idea. But here’s the thing: When it was ethanol trains derailing and exploding, I don’t remember any national outcry to slow the production of ethanol. Something that, unlike oil, is actually driven by government subsidies and mandates.

Oil is produced because people want to use it. Ethanol is produced because the government subsidizes it, and mandates its use.

Of course, all that is beside the point. It’s not ethanol or oil that’s causing trains to derail, and it’s not the ethanol or oil that’s causing the tanks they’re hauled in to rupture. The problem, to put it bluntly, is the tank.

This 2013 article from television station WKYC explains:

…safety advocates are sounding a warning over the type of rail car commonly used to transport products like crude oil and ethanol. They may have some serious safety flaws. …

The DOT-111 has been called the “workhorse” of the American tanker car fleet. These non-pressure tanks make up roughly 69 percent of U.S. tank cars according to National Transportation Safety Board. They have been in use for decades and are recognizable for their soda can shape.

But five times in 20 years, the NTSB has warned the DOT-111’s design is unsafe.

Specifically, in collisions and derailments their steel shell is vulnerable to puncture, fittings on top can rupture on impact, and the tanker’s ends are prone to damage.

There is currently a lot of finger-pointing going on between the federal government and the rail/energy industries over the flammability of Bakken crude oil. But that’s a distraction. Ethanol, as evidence by the aforementioned explosive train derailments, is every bit as flammable.

Which isn’t a criticism of ethanol. The problem is not ethanol, and it’s not oil either. It’s the DOT-111 tanker car that has been identified as a problem for decades but not fixed or replaced.

Americans – especially those of us living in communities along the rail lines – are rightfully worried about these train derailments. And some, for political reasons, want to twist that worry into opposition to energy development. But the real problem – the problem that has been unfixed for more than two decades – is a faulty rail car.