Potential oil train incidents raise environmental and safety concerns

December 15, 2014

New drilling techniques, namely hydraulic fracturing, have resulted in a boom in production, and a significant increase in the amount of oil and processing chemicals being transported by rail. However, this trend arrives with significant risk. According to the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, more oil was spilled in rail accidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined. In Alabama, a single train spilled more than 750,000 gallons of oil into sensitive wetland habitats. 

This increase in risk has led North Dakota, home to the productive Bakken Shale region, to reconsider existing proposed regulations on safe rail transport. Federal safety regulators, including the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation have all called on the state's regulators for prompt action. 

Reuters reports that North Dakota's Industrial Commission on Tuesday ordered that all oil produced from Bakken plays must be passed through surface separation facilities to ensure it is safe prior to transport. This is in addition to previous federal efforts to increase the safety of rail transport.

This latest legislation is meant to mitigate the volatility of Bakken crude, but is still not enough for some critics. In a joint statement, Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens and Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald praised the recent decision, but called for further action to address outdated oil tanker rail cars. 

These efforts can come at significant costs for oil producers and transporters at a time when crude prices are falling. These companies should retain environmental consultants to maintain profitability while effectively mitigating environmental risk during transport. These professionals can help stakeholders utilize new technology in the most cost-effective manner.