Column: Trains vs. Pipelines, Crude Decisions on Safety

Pam Linn

At the risk of being labeled a flip-flopper, I am willing to reconsider a former position on oil transportation safety. We are hauling more flammables (crude being the most common) in railroad cars to more than 500,000 carloads so far this year from 9,500 in 2008. I addressed this in a May 28 column “Trains hauling crude must improve safety” but now, I’m not so sure.

Incidents of fiery crashes rise almost weekly. While railroad company executives argue with government regulators, cities through which the shipments pass are taking matters into their own hands.

A recent Associated Press article chronicled what safety measures are being taken by big cities nationwide. Emergency management departments in Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Sacramento, Newark and Buffalo are training first responders how to deal with the hazards. The results vary but all the cities surveyed are addressing the problem in some way.

Thousands of firefighters have attended training sessions by the Association of American Railroads at its facility near Pueblo, Colo. The industry also holds free hazardous materials workshops around the country where first responders practice diagnosing leaking tank cars, among other challenges.

However, it is also true that the railroad industry has refused to upgrade tanker cars to resist punctures and the ensuing fires and explosions. At first, they said they couldn’t comply with regulations scheduled to start in 2020. Now they are agreeing to 2018, according to the Associated Press report. But is compliance still voluntary?

In discussing this problem with my children, I was reminded of my reluctance to support the Keystone XL pipeline project that has still not been approved by the federal government. But incidents of pipeline ruptures continue to rise as aging pipes leak, fouling rivers and streams on which people depend for drinking water.

So which method of transport is more damaging? Railroad crashes are more dramatic and in many cases have killed more people. But pipeline ruptures often occur unnoticed while contaminating water that people drink. Cleaning oil spills in winter when rivers are covered in ice is more than problematic; it can be impossible.

Environmentalists say both are equally damaging and we should convert to clean, renewable energy. Some economists support this view while others say it will be a long time before wind, solar and other renewable sources could provide enough energy to support a growing economy.

And now, just to mess up the whole argument, Warren Buffet has weighed in with a diatribe against rooftop solar. What was he thinking? Over the past decade he has invested $15 billion in solar energy projects around the country. This latest has something to do with Nevada where lobbyists for his company are trying to remove “net metering” because they say it’s too cumbersome and hurts non-solar customers. But didn’t I just read somewhere that Berkshire Hathaway just bought a $4.5 billion stake in Phillips 66, the largest U.S. oil refinery? 

Personally, I believe in conservation even though Dick Cheney once said it was a personal value but not the answer to the greater problem. We now have a president who is willing to talk about climate change as being a clear and present danger to civilization as we know it. So why did he just OK Shell’s drilling in the Arctic? And who is responsible for the scheduling disaster that placed President Obama in Alaska, talking about global warming, on the same week that Shell is setting up its drilling rigs just offshore? It’s a strange contradiction.

The world today and the energy sector in particular present huge contradictions for those who worry about climate change and environmental issues. Politicians have answers but they don’t always make sense. Voters look to the government to keep them safe. But we are facing safety issues that seem to be in conflict. 

How do we protect the planet from increasingly apparent effects of climate change? And how do we balance our need for energy with our desire for safety? It would help if industry lobbyists would back off and allow meaningful regulation to proceed before more calamities demand it.

I stand by my earlier opinion on safer railcars for hauling flammable liquids. And I stand with Bill McKibben and others who would protect our water resources at the expense of pipelines. But in my heart I know that conservation of both water and energy will play a huge part in our continued well-being.