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Fracking has been a boon to railroads not just because of a huge jump in crude-by-rail shipments—from nearly nothing to 300,000 annual carloads in half a decade.
Railroads have also booked rapidly growing revenues delivering "frac sand"—used in hydraulic fracturing of wells. Last year trains moved at least 200,000 carloads of frac sand. In Wisconsin alone, more than 100 frac-sand mines now are operating.
Then there's the downstream traffic boom: chemicals, plastics, natural gas liquids.
The unhappy face of this unexpected industrial revolution, at least in Canada, has become a U.S. rail executive, Ed Burkhardt, whose runaway Montreal Maine & Atlantic train devastated the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic on July 6. Bodies are still being recovered but the dead number 37 so far. Editorialists and politicians in Canada have whipped themselves into fury of denunciation. Mr. Burkhardt was inexcusably tardy in visiting the town. He said too much, or too little, or not the right thing, whatever that is. But this is how it works. And unlike Trayvon Martin and the San Francisco plane crash, news of which have overshadowed Lac-Mégantic in the U.S., the consequences will be large for years to come.
Remains of a 72-car oil train derailment in Quebec on July 6.
In fact, the evidence is mixed on whether pipelines or railroads are safer for transporting oil, and may not be relevant, industrially or politically. Rail shipping is likely to keep growing no matter what happens with the Keystone pipeline, over which President Obama has been perfecting his Hamlet impersonation.
Rail offers flexibility, allowing shippers quickly to redirect supplies to wherever they are most valued. What's more, East and West Coast refineries, like the one in Saint John, New Brunswick, toward which the MM&A train was headed (displacing North Sea oil), are not convenient to the pipeline network and likely never will be. And when it comes to Alberta tar sands, rail has another advantage: Before Canada's sludgy bitumen can even be handled by a pipeline, it must be diluted with natural gas condensate, often shipped all the way from the Gulf Coast.
Let's be serious about environmental opposition. Environmentalists are not opposed to pipelines, aka Keystone; they are opposed to fossil fuels. They will oppose both Keystone and oil shipping by rail with perfect consistency. Their goal is to raise the cost of using fossil fuels and to punish politicians who don't move their way on regulating carbon.
Lac-Mégantic will now be thrown into the battle. The Lac-Mégantic disaster may well boil down to a railroad industry that was unready for the opportunity that opened up in the past few years to carry large amounts of a hazardous substance on routes and lines laid down a century ago around which highly populated areas inevitably grew up.
That MM&A's nearly mile-long oil train was left parked and unguarded overnight. That the lead locomotive was left running and unlocked on a hill above town. That nobody can say for sure whether the sole crewmember manually set the brakes on enough tank cars before heading off to a motel. Um, er, um.
Somehow we doubt this is how an industry behaves that knows it's handling a cargo capable of erasing a town. Reports of windfall profits by owners of tank cars; news of a multitude of minor spills and derailments; all are evidence of a crude-by-rail market developing faster than certain operators have been able to master the new opportunity.
Mr. Burkhardt, before he became the face of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, led a heroic generation of entrepreneurs who came along after deregulation to return abandoned, decaying and bankrupt rail lines to useful service. He was especially famous for his globe-trotting search for "best practices."
After Lac-Mégantic, every town through which freight trains rumble will wonder whether archaic technology in the hands of goofballs stands between them and disaster.
Automation will certainly become more important. Mr. Burkhardt continues to be a believer in one-man train crews, although a practical lesson may be that, until the human element can be removed altogether, combining a single operator with technology that drains his job of engagement and urgency is the worst of all possible worlds. Airlines have figured this out already. Airlines discovered "crew resource management," or CRM, precisely because too many of their multi-person crews were behaving like one-man crews, with underlings refusing to second-guess a more senior pilot who, amid a welter of automated processes and signals, had lost the plot.
Oil still runs our civilization. NIMBYism and environmental activism may push back. Building a new pipeline or rail facility may become harder and more expensive than it needs to be. But Lac-Mégantic will not prove a way station on the route to a carbon-free future. More likely it will bring forth a serious campaign to make sure crude-by-rail is safe enough to become a permanent feature of a North American energy landscape being transformed by fracking.
This article first appeared on online.wsj.com
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