It’s too early to draw conclusions about the events that preceded the fiery, deadly train wreck in Quebec on Saturday that left at least 60 people dead or missing and more than 30 buildings obliterated. Police are investigating to determine whether foul play or criminal negligence caused the train to run away and derail.
But in the wake of the devastation in Lac-Megantic — and as the public’s distrust in and aversion to oil transported by rail deepens — it’s important to examine the responsibilities of all who could have played a role in preventing the tragedy.
First, government and railroad officials everywhere should respond openly. They should speak honestly about how they safeguard the transport of oil over rail, how they maintain rail lines and where they can improve. They should be clear about their response in the event of a spill and how they are adapting to the increase in shipments of crude oil by rail.
It is also important to understand the complexity in the debate over the safety of transporting oil by rail or pipeline. John Kemp, a Reuters market analyst, breaks down the statistics well: Rail results in a larger number of smaller spills, while pipelines have fewer spills that tend to be greater in volume. However, Scientific American points out that there hasn’t been a fatality from a petroleum-related pipeline accident since 1999, when a pipeline carrying gasoline — which is more volatile than crude oil — ruptured. Pipelines are also more cost-effective than truck or train.
Maine sees its share of spills via rail, but they rarely result in great damage. In March, for example, 15 tankers on a 96-car Pan Am Railway train derailed in Mattawamkeag, tipping 13 of them close to the Penobscot River. Only a few gallons of crude oil spilled on the ground, however. In 2012, Maine saw 2,403 oil-product spills, but only 3 percent, or 73, were related to rail transportation, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Most spills released five gallons or fewer, though one spill left behind 100 gallons.
Whether by rail or pipeline, the transport of oil comes with risk. But the danger can be reduced by maintaining equipment well. Inspections are most often performed by the railroad companies themselves, though federal regulators perform periodic inspections and audit company inspection reports. Though the reports are available to the public, they must be requested under the Freedom of Information Act, which often takes several weeks. It could boost public confidence if the companies made these reports easy to obtain and understand, especially since poor track conditions have been the primary cause of derailments on Pan Am Railways and Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway tracks since 2006.
The state’s responsibility lies largely with responding to spills. After the Quebec disaster, the DEP’s Response Division has strong incentive to complete a series of maps that will help it respond to a large rail incident. Oil has been brought in by tanker ships for years, so the department has a plan for the coast and knows the locations of historic preservation sites, vulnerable habitats, lobster pounds and places to launch assistance. It does not have a similar plan for inland areas and is working to develop one, which will identify locations of public drinking supplies, endangered species and railroad access points.
At the same time, the public must recognize its hand in the larger issue: energy consumption. Demand for oil may be declining in the U.S., but the country still uses far more than other nations; it consumes more than Russia, China and India combined.
Some have noted that the 50,000 barrels of crude oil being transported by U.S.-owned MMA last weekend was only going to pass through Maine. But while the oil from North Dakota was heading through the state to a refinery in St. John, New Brunswick, the owner of the refinery, Irving Energy, says it sends more than half its 300,000 daily barrels of finished oil products back to the northeastern United States.
It’s not reasonable to expect Maine or the U.S. to quit using oil altogether, stop the trains and halt construction of pipelines, but there is good reason to reduce demand. While railroads and state and federal agencies can always improve safety and delivery, everyone must contribute to the ultimate solution: consuming less and protecting the environment more.