By Ben Gips, Williams College
President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline earned great applause from environmental groups. The Keystone Pipeline already exists, running from oil sand fields in Alberta, Canada into the U.S., ending in Cushing, Oklahoma. What we rejected is its proposed expansion, the Keystone XL Pipeline. This raises an important question much closer to home: What are our alternatives to transporting oil by pipeline?
One method that is currently being used right here in Williamstown is crude oil transportation by rail. High-profile accidents have shown us that this method of transportation puts communities like ours at risk. The July 2014 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was caused by a train carrying crude oil that derailed in the center of town. Forty-seven people were killed in the sudden inferno there.
Currently, over one million barrels of crude oil move by rail every day across the United States. Lac-Mégantic was the first deadly oil train disaster, but there have been numerous close-call derailments in many communities. Residents of Mount Carbon, West Virginia saw a massive explosion and fires that burned for twenty-four hours after a crude-laden train flew off the rails nearby. A similar explosion rocked the fields surrounding Casselton, North Dakota in December of 2013. In Lynchburg, Virginia, an April 2014 derailment saw portions of the James River burning as a result of crude oil being spilled near its shores. The list goes on.
The same types of trains, with the same volatile Bakken Shale crude oil, run through Williamstown every day. One can see the trains from Cole Field, and hear their horns throughout town. Many include the infamous DOT-111 railcars, which made up a large portion of the cars that ruptured during the Lac-Mégantic disaster. We, as the residents of a town that is threatened by the rail transportation of crude oil, need to demand bolder steps from our government. There has been some legislative reaction to the dangers posed by transporting crude oil by rail, but mostly endless debate.
The need for change is clear. However, an outright ban on the transportation of crude oil by rail would simply lead the oil industry to deploy alternative methods of transportation, at least in the short term. Pipelines, trucks, and barges are the realistic alternatives, and they each pose environmental and other dangers. Without safe options for transporting this dangerous material, the only way to prevent disasters in the future is to reduce oil dependence unilaterally. In the meantime, a reasonable starting point for regulation is to ban the DOT-111 tanker cars. This structurally unsound car currently makes up over half of the US fleet of oil tankers. Some rail companies have voluntarily agreed to stop using this model of car for crude in the next few years, but their timeframes and commitments vary. Crude oil should be subject to the same restrictions as flammable materials such as gasoline, which can only be carried in pressurized railcars. Forcing this change onto oil companies would certainly impose an added cost to them, but they are the ones responsible for making their industry safer. We also need stricter measures requiring oil companies to openly publish information about their shipping routes and the makeup of their oil. Our community deserves reliable information about what is coming down our tracks.
Though the safety of our community is reason enough to make this change in policy, there are other, similarly pressing consequences of continuing to transport such a volatile substance in a precarious manner. The environmental costs of oil spills are huge. The effects of global warming are continuing to manifest themselves, while low gas prices take away incentives to reduce fossil fuel consumption. The railroad can become our battleground against the expansion of fossil fuels. By demanding regulation of this industry, we are not only protecting ourselves from accidents and explosions, but also from the even more deadly effects of climate change in years to come.
Until the government can create some meaningful legislation of oil trains, it is our responsibility to organize as a community and demand safer methods of transportation. We can either remain silent and continue allowing the fossil fuel companies to quite literally roll over our community, or we can mobilize and demand a better alternative. By organizing with our local government, Williamstown can and should demand safer rails.
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Thank you to Professor Pia Kohler for her consultation and support.