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Federal Agency Warns Crude by Rail Could Result in 'Major Loss of Life'

'The question isn’t about whether to use rail or pipelines. It’s about how to reduce our need for both,' critics urge

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

Wrecked oil tankers and debris from a runaway train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Que. (AFP/Surete du Quebec, Postmedia News)Following an unprecedented year in crude oil spills from explosive train derailments, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has issued a warning that "major loss of life" is likely to result from future accidents, urging the U.S. and Canadian governments to develop new safety rules.

While many in the fossil fuel industry as well as supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline are using the critique of the safety of crude-by-rail as a reason to push for more oil pipelines, critics such as climate expert David Suzuki say both transportation methods pose significant risks.

The NTSB's recommendations, which were coordinated with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, included re-routing trains that carry hazardous materials, such as highly explosive North Dakota Bakken crude oil, to avoid populated and sensitive areas.

"The NTSB is concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on single train involved in an accident," NTSB said.

"One of the reasons we’re seeing more train accidents involving fossil fuels is the incredible boom in moving these products by rail," writes Suzuki. "According to the American Association of Railroads, train shipment of crude oil in the U.S. grew from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 234,000 in 2012—almost 25 times as many in only four years! That’s expected to rise to 400,000 this year."

However, as Suzuki writes, while shipping by rail leads to more accidents and spills, "pipeline leaks usually involve much larger volumes."

Pipelines spilled 474,441 barrels of oil in the past 10 years, compared to 2,268 barrels spilled in the same time by rail.

Yet, more crude oil spilled from train accidents in 2013 alone than in the previous four decades combined, according to a McClatchy report this week, pointing towards a drastic shift in the highly toxic, yet growing, crude oil business to rail transport.

The increase, reports AP, is "overwhelmingly due to the fracking boom in North Dakota's Bakken region."

The answer to these safety issues, says Suzuki, is to "step back from this reckless plunder and consider ways to reduce our fossil fuel use" altogether so we are not faced with the choice between massive pipeline leaks and a higher frequency of fiery rail explosions such as the one in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last summer, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in town causing a massive explosion and the deaths of 47 people.

Suzuki adds:

If we were to slow down oil sands development, encourage conservation and invest in clean energy technology, we could save money, ecosystems, and lives—and we’d still have valuable fossil fuel resources long into the future, perhaps until we’ve figured out ways to use them that aren’t so wasteful. We wouldn’t need to build more pipelines just to sell oil and gas as quickly as possible, mostly to foreign markets. We wouldn’t have to send so many unsafe rail tankers through wilderness areas and places people live.

The question isn’t about whether to use rail or pipelines. It’s about how to reduce our need for both.

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