Oil by Rail: The Real Danger of an Oil Boom Going Bust

Over the last six years, the amount of oil transported by rail has increased by over 4,000%. And while that number may seem like an exaggeration, it’s anything but. That increase is due to an oil production boom in the Bakken region of North Dakota and the tar sands fields of Alberta, Canada.

A recent oil train derailment (and explosion) in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that claimed the lives of 47 people has resulted in oil trains quickly becoming a concern for elected officials, regulators, emergency response professionals, policy makers, researchers, and concerned citizens. There is a pressing need to determine true hazards facing communities and to develop solutions to prevent disasters.

This past weekend, I attended a conference focused on addressing that very need. I discovered the sobering truth is that crude by rail poses a serious threat to millions of Americans. In North America alone, a train derailment occurs almost every month. During the conference we discussed the scope of the issue, current regulatory frameworks, and explored solutions to better safeguard communities. I was particularly pleased that the conference viewed oil trains through an environmental justice issue lens.

Considering the sheer volume and frequency of oil trains that travel through Harris County, we have been incredibly lucky that a disaster has not occurred. Perhaps what is more alarming is many Houstonians are not even aware that volatile crude oil is traveling through their community. However, I suspect that once communities are aware of the dangers associated with oil trains, they will become engaged and active participants in making oil trains as safe as possible.