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Oil Train Derailments Spur Calls For Safety Measures


The state of North Dakota produces a lot of oil - everyday roughly a million barrels. But there isn't the pipeline capacity to ship all that oil to major markets right now, so the industry has been turning to the railroads. Tens of millions of dollars of new infrastructure has been built on western North Dakota's Bakken rock formation in recent years to transport all this oil. But after some recent derailments and explosions involving oil tanker trains, some are calling for a slowdown. NPR's Kirk Siegler has this next installment in our series on the North Dakota Oil Rush.


KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: I'm standing at a railroad crossing by Berthold, North Dakota. It is freezing - minus 5 - and I'm watching an oil tanker train creep past me. I've been standing here for about five minutes. This sucker is more than a mile long and it's carrying about a hundred oil tanker cars. And watching it, it's like a pipeline on wheels.


SIEGLER: This train is headed just up the tracks to a new facility owned by one of the oil industry's biggest players, Enbridge. More than 60,000 barrels of oil will be loaded there. And each day about 10 of these trains leave North Dakota for the West and East Coasts.

BOB STEEDE: My window's frozen.

SIEGLER: Enbridge's general manager of North Dakota operations, Bob Steede, hops out of his SUV to give me a glimpse of the company's new $160 million facility in Berthold.

STEEDE: It's created an interim solution for us to provide to our customers while we're working on additional pipeline infrastructure.

SIEGLER: Enbridge is a pipeline company but lately it's entered the crude-by-rail business because there's so much oil being extracted here. There isn't the pipeline capacity to ship it out to refineries in Seattle, Los Angeles or Philadelphia, where the bulk of North Dakota crude oil goes.

STEEDE: You know, pipelines take time to build. There's a lot of permitting, a lot of planning that needs to go into it, so it's usually a multi-year process. You know, rails got the ability to be a lot more flexible and happen quicker.

SIEGLER: Last year, more than 70 percent of all the oil produced in North Dakota left the state by rail. And with all that oil on these pipelines on wheels, if you will, there have been problems.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A train collision in North Dakota causes a major fire and series of explosions, sending a mushroom cloud deep into the sky.

SIEGLER: In December, an oil tanker train carrying Bakken crude collided with a derailed freight train in eastern North Dakota, causing an entire town to be evacuated. For state lawmakers, like Kenton Onstad, it wasn't a matter of if but when.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE KENTON ONSTAD: Bakken oil is more flammable. It has a higher gas-oil ratio. It's always been a concern. Railroad, and you see them go and run on the track. You see these sparks and so on, and you kind of wonder is all of that safe?

SIEGLER: Onstad, who's the State House minority leader, has joined others calling for increased safety measures and tougher regulations on oil tanker cars. He also wants more money for emergency response, especially in rural western North Dakota towns like his, where just a handful of volunteer firefighters and EMTs are on hand.

ONSTAD: Western North Dakota is built by the railroad. All these little towns, they all got started because the railroad came in there. And so all these trains go through all these little towns, and every one of them now, because of that derailment we seeing, you know, I'm not too keen on living next to this railroad anymore.

SIEGLER: And for the most part, the railroad industry is supporting tougher regulations. Rail companies like BNSF are making big money shipping all this oil. It's a lot more expensive for oil companies to send it by rail than over a pipeline. And economics will likely curtail this booming trend. Frank Moseley is an industry consultant and energy consultant at Minot State University.

FRANK MOSELEY: If you had a wish list, you want to do it by pipeline 'cause it's the most economical and there's no moving parts. You know, you've got a pipe, got cathodic protection - it's in the ground - and it's relatively safe.

SIEGLER: And Moseley predicts the crude-by-rail trend will level off another year or so once companies like Enbridge finish their separate massive pipeline infrastructure projects to ship North Dakota's black gold far and wide. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

MARTIN: Our Oil Rush series continues tonight on WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with a story on the effort to bring high culture to oil workers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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