Inside Energy: Debating the Safety Hazards of Shipping Bakken Oil by Rail

Oil trains are one of the clearest connections between the Bakken oil field in North Dakota and regular Americans.

In 2008, no oil left North Dakota by train, Inside Energy’s Emily Guerin reports. Now, over 700,000 barrels a day do. The trains run next to homes and through downtowns from Oregon to Virginia. And when they derail and explode, the consequences can be deadly.

In July 2013, an unmanned train carrying North Dakota crude oil derailed and incinerated much of downtown Lac Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Six months later, a train carrying grain crashed into an oil train outside Casselton, North Dakota, forcing most of the town to evacuate. Since then, cities with oil train traffic have been preparing for the worst.

In June, both Fargo and Bismarck, North Dakota, did mock catastrophe exercises to prepare first responders there for a possible train derailment with up to 60 casualties.

In Minnesota, where nearly 70 percent of North Dakota’s oil passes through, lawmakers are strengthening rail safety rules by beefing up inspections, requiring railroads to help train local emergency responders and submit disaster prevention plans.

But states like Minnesota have no say in what’s carried in the tank cars that roll by on their railroad tracks. That’s why Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asked North Dakota’s governor to require oil companies to make the oil safer.

“The oil companies are the ones making most of the profit,” said Dave Christianson, senior planner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “So we feel the parties who are profiting from it should be responsible for part of the expense.”

Read the full report on why oil companies are pushing back against that idea here.

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