North Dakota’s oil-rich shale has made it one of the nation’s newest epicenters of energy production. What Minnesotans may not realize is that the drilling on their northwest neighbor’s plains has made the North Star state a critical crude-oil transportation link, with an estimated two-thirds of North Dakota’s production coming through by railroad and two major freight lines crisscrossing in the Twin Cities.
With production from the Bakken formation still ramping up and new pipeline construction mired in politics, the volume of crude coming through the state isn’t likely to ebb soon. While derailments are statistically rare, recent accidents in Quebec and Casselton, N.D., put a spotlight on the safety risks of trains that are often 100 cars or longer. Minnesota’s position at the center of the oil-by-rail “vortex,” as a Brookings Institution expert put it last week, means that the state’s congressional delegation and its legislators should be working to ensure that oil passes through here as safely as possible.
Fortunately, momentum to improve safeguards is building. The rail industry voluntarily shifted in 2011 to tougher, more puncture-resistant standards for new tank cars to prevent fires and spills, according to a Jan. 9 Star Tribune story. But with these new cars comprising only about 15 percent of the tank-car fleet, federal regulators are scrutinizing whether to require the industry to retrofit older tank cars with similar structural reinforcements — a move supported by railroads but questioned by oil producers and other shippers. They typically own the rail cars and have questioned the cost of the reinforcements.
In January, National Transportation Safety Board officials also called for rerouting trains carrying hazardous materials around densely populated areas if possible.
These are sensible and overdue safeguards, particularly with domestic oil production rising and railroads now carrying 10 percent of the nation’s oil-field production, up from 1 percent in 2010, according to a Jan. 25 New York Times story. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has smartly called for a Senate hearing on oil-by-rail safety, should use her growing leverage to push for the strongest possible safety requirements.
There’s also work to be done at the state level. Legislators and transportation officials need to ensure that resources for incident response and training related to hazardous materials carried by rail have kept pace with the crude-oil shipments coming through Minnesota. During an interview with an editorial writer last week, a state Department of Transportation official said that Minnesota has four hazmat specialists for automotive accidents, but no staffer dedicated to railway hazmat incidents. Training is important if local emergency responders are to be prepared for derailments.
In addition, the state should consider bolstering inspections and auditing rail shipments in partnership with the Federal Railway Administration (FRA). The FRA has a State Rail Safety Participation Program to augment its “own inspection and investigative capabilities,’’ according to a statement provided last week. Not only is the agency enthusiastically welcoming further state contributions to railroad safety, it may reimburse states for some training expenses.
Building the Keystone Pipeline could decrease rail shipments out of the Bakken by as much as 60 to 70 percent, according to Brookings Institution expert Charles Ebinger — but pipelines are not without risks, either, and the political stalemate over Keystone suggests that oil will continue to roll through Minnesota well into the future. The state must push for all possible steps to minimize the risks for communities along the way.