Bakken’s Boom is Minnesota’s Peril
Hundreds of tons of crude oil that exploded and burned, causing the small town of Casselton, North Dakota's evacuation on Dec. 30, was 25 miles from crossing the Minnesota border when a train derailment touched off the massive blast and fire. And the tanker train disaster that killed 47 in a Quebec town in July involved North Dakota crude that probably had traveled through Minnesota, according to the state Department of Transportation.
About eight 110-car oil trains a day enter Minnesota from the booming Bakken Shale Formation, up from none just a few years ago, and only a few a month unload at refineries here. The vast majority highball on to Wisconsin, the East and Gulf coasts and even eastern Canada. Most of the trains, each carrying more than 70,000 barrels of highly volatile Bakken crude, pass through the Twin Cities on their way east.
“So much happening with the Bakken is impacting us here,” said Dave Christianson, a MnDOT rail planner. “Most of their oil just doesn’t fit into pipelines.”
While Minnesota gets little direct economic boost from all the through traffic of black gold, there’s one sector that’s enjoyed a marked uptick: hazardous material training and equipping of emergency responders along the rail lines in the event of an oil-train catastrophe. The state Department of Public Safety, along with the Canadian Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways, the major haulers of Bakken crude through Minnesota, conducted training in many state rail towns last year and have been asked to repeat it in 2014.
Unlike the thick tar sands crude Minnesota has imported from Canada, Bakken oil is very light, yielding 90 percent automotive fuel from refining. “It’s really good stuff,” from an economic point of view, Christianson said, but much more flammable. Once firefighters prepared to douse ethanol tanker fires with water; now they’re stocking up on chemical foam to battle a rail-borne crude oil conflagration.
This new threat isn’t unique to Minnesota, although our state probably bears the greatest brunt aside from North Dakota itself. According to the Association of American Railroads, major U.S. railroads moved an estimated 400,000 carloads of crude oil last year, up 40-fold from as recently as 2008.
About 80 percent of the total carloads pass through Minnesota, and 60 percent through the highly populated Twin Cities, before fanning out into many other states. In return, we’ve lost about one coal train passing through the state for every two oil trains gained, Christianson said.
Citing figures from 2002 to 2012, the railroads claim their trains are nearly two-thirds less susceptible to crude oil spills than pipelines. That, however, doesn’t reflect most of the recent surge in oil shipment by rail or the major Casselton and Quebec accidents of 2013, the first of their kind in North America in three decades.
Railroads also have been upgrading tracks, switches and signal systems to secure oil shipment, spending a record $25.5 billion on all improvements in 2012. And the industry has pressed for tougher federal safety standards governing the nation’s 92,000 railroad oil tankers, nearly all of them owned or leased by oil interests. Since October 2011, about 14,000 new tank cars have been built with heavier protection of shells and fittings. Railroads want the government to order retrofitting or phase-out of the tens of thousands of older tankers still in service.
“The railroads are upgrading lines as fast as they can, but it takes money and years,” Christianson said. “The long-term solution is more pipeline capacity. It’s a much safer way to move oil in the long run -- no moving parts.”
Minnesota is the only state in the nation’s vast midsection with no shale basins at all, so our status as ground zero for oil shipments by rail seems particularly star-crossed. Pipelines have downsides, too, and certainly aren’t popular, so it may take an oil-train disaster in Minnesota to spur their development.
Meanwhile, the railroads, with their dense network of track across the country, stand ready to ship crude oil from practically anywhere the new extraction methods of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are introduced. They’re also big movers of the mountains of frac sand needed for these technologies, some of it mined in Minnesota and more shipped through.
As Minnesotans have learned in the long-running controversy over relocating freight tracks out of the way of the planned Southwest light rail line, the federal government wields most of the power to regulate railroads, which are huge engines of interstate commerce.
State policymakers can do little to respond to the glut of oil passing dangerously through our borders. But members of Congress from North Dakota, West Virginia and even Oregon, where some westbound Bakken oil is shipped, have been calling for federal action.
So it’s good to see at least one voice in Washington from Minnesota’s oil-train ground zero being raised as well.