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Editorial: Oil train regulation going off the rails

The “Bakken Boom” refers to the thousands of jobs related to extracting crude from shale in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, but it could also describe the intense explosions when oil-bearing trains derail.

The latest boom occurred last week just outside Casselton, N.D., where tank cars of Bakken crude exploded, sending a massive plume of smoke over a populated area in sub-zero temperatures. Officials called for the evacuation of all 2,400 residents. The mayor estimated that 100 people would have died had the explosions occurred in town.

Forty-seven people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, did die in July from an oil train blast. A November explosion in rural Alabama didn’t hurt anyone, but it did produce a giant fireball and scorched surrounding wetlands.

That’s a concern for cities like Spokane and Spokane Valley, since trains run right through them. Said former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall, “You are creating a movable bomb from community to community.”

On Thursday, federal officials issued a safety alert, noting that Bakken’s light crude may be more dangerous than previously thought. As a result, the National Transportation Safety Board has belatedly launched a review of how safe it is to transport this petroleum by rail.

Five years ago, this wasn’t a concern, but technological breakthroughs in Bakken field drilling have transformed North Dakota into the second-largest oil producing state, behind Texas. However, underground pipeline construction has been stalled by lengthy environmental reviews, claiming, for instance, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which could be used to ship Bakken crude. Protests aimed at restricting the tar-sands development in Alberta are also forcing dangerous crude onto trains.

In 2009, about 8,000 tank cars were ferrying crude through North American cities, according to the Globe and Mail of Toronto. By last November, it was 400,000 tankers, as railroads successfully marketed themselves as an alternative to stalled pipelines.

As a result, the first-ever train bearing crude chugged through Spokane in September 2012, en route to a refinery in Anacortes. Since then, one a day has passed through, and it’s likely that the number will triple. The debate about coal trains is about to be swamped by the greater danger posed by oil.

Regulation of the rails is entirely up to the federal government, with state and local officials left to work on emergency response drills. All the crude-related accidents have involved older tank cars, and the feds need to ensure they are brought up to date to handle extremely flammable Bakken crude.

The reality is that oil will be shipped, and pipelines, which are preferable, won’t be available for some time, if ever. So lagging safety regulations must catch up with the trains.

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