Weighing the risks of moving oil by rail

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Railroad traffic in the Houston region is expected to double over the next 20 years. Much of this growth is being attributed to a huge increase in the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail through our area.

The US Energy Information Administration reported that as of April, Texas was producing 2,454 barrels of crude oil a day. That's more than any other state in the country. In fact, by the end of 2012, the EIA reported US crude oil production was averaging 7 million barrels a day, the highest amount since 1992. Since there is not enough pipeline in the US to handle this amount of daily production oil, companies have had to look to rail for a more long-term solution to get crude oil to refineries.

In light of the Canadian disaster that claimed dozens of lives when a shipment of crude oil derailed in the middle of a town, increased scrutiny is being placed on this method of shipment.

There are no restrictions on what rail routes can be used to ship crude oil. There is also no government agency that tracks exactly how much crude oil is shipped by rail through the Houston area.

However, the Association of American Railroads reports the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail is growing at a huge rate. The AAR reported that nationwide, 9,500 carloads of crude oil were shipped by rail at the end of 2008. By the end of 2012, that number swelled to 234,000 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail. The AAR reported one carload of crude oil is equivalent to 600 to 700 barrels of crude oil.

Most safety experts agree moving crude oil by pipeline or rail is safer than moving the product over the road by tanker truck. However, which is the safest method can be murky.

The AAR reported that between 2002 and 2012 there were 129 crude oil incidents, 94 of which involved spills of five gallons or less. The AAR reported that during that same time period there were 1,849 incidents involving pipelines.

When looking at accidents in general, the US Department of Transportation reported 566 incidents involving pipelines in 2012. A June report by the Federal Railroad Administration noted approximately 1,600 accidents involving all types of rail lines. The FRA also noted this was the lowest number of rail accidents since 2003.

"We do plan for those worst case scenarios," said Ben Price, a senior captain with the Houston Fire Department.

Price said HFD is aware of the increased rail traffic through our area and notes that every fire district in the city is trained to handle derailments involving spills of crude oil and other hazardous chemicals. Price said HFD has handled between 8 to 9 train derailments in the last five years, but none involved major spills.

Officials with the Gulf Coast Rail District are also studying the impact of increased rail traffic on the Houston region. Executive Director Maureen Crocker said rail traffic in the region will double over the next 20 years.

"The roadway network cannot handle all of the freight," said Crocker.

Crocker said there are 700 "at grade" crossings in the City of Houston and 1,200 in the eight-county region. Crocker said the district is studying which of these crossings has the highest amount of traffic. Crocker said the results of the study will help determine whether bridges should be built at some of the crossings to cut down on the amount of rail and vehicle interaction.

"That's the place where there is the opportunity for accidents," said Crocker.

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