Delivery Problems: What Are the Risks of Transporting Energy?

Amy Harder

The recent crash and explosion of an oil train in Canada, which has killed at least 38 people, has shone a scrutinizing light on the way fossil fuels are transported across large swaths of North America.

The rail-shipped oil that exploded in a small Quebec town was en route to eastern Canada from North Dakota. In part because of the oil boom in western North Dakota, the volume of oil shipped by rail (and also by truck and barge) continues to increase as production outpaces pipeline capacity, according to new data from the federal Energy Information Administration. Trains, trucks and barges also offer a more flexible means of transportation than pipelines. More than half the oil transported throughout the country goes by pipeline.

The oil-train crash also adds a new dimension to the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which analysts say would displace some rail-shipped oil. Pipelines have their own problems, too, of course, which the Arkansas oil spill from earlier this year showed.

Criticism is likewise growing around natural-gas pipelines, especially in light of a major pipeline explosion in Louisiana last month. And the risks of shipping coal by rail were exposed when a coal train derailed in Maryland and killed two teenage girls in August 2012.

What are the dangers of transporting these fossil fuels? What can Washington do to prevent, or at least minimize, future disasters? Does Congress need to pass legislation to ensure safer deliveries of fossil fuels? Without much fanfare, President Obama in January 2012 signed legislation strengthening the nation’s pipeline regulations. What more needs to be done? What are the benefits of transporting fossil fuels in the various ways, including rail, barge, truck and pipeline?

Do these incidents provide momentum for the United States to shift more quickly to renewable fuels? If so, what challenges would that raise in terms of storing and transporting renewable energy?