A recent string of oil train derailments has renewed focus on rail safety and boosted support for oil pipelines as a safer mode of transportation, potentially affecting the public’s perception of pipeline projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, whose southern leg went into service on January 22, 2014 and whose northern leg was the subject of a relatively objective final supplemental Environmental Impact Statement from the Department of State, issued on January 31, 2014.

The transport of oil by rail in the U.S. increased markedly in the past decade, increasing by nearly 50% between 2012 and 2013 alone.  Not surprisingly, the dramatic rise in use of rail correlates to a rapid increase in number and volumes of releases, with domestic oil trains spilling more oil in 2013 than in the previous 38 years combined, according to a recent report.  This report notes that 1.15 million gallons of crude oil spilled from trains in 2013 (not including the 400,000 gallons spilled in a North Dakota derailment in December 2013), as compared to 800,000 total gallons spilled in the period from 1975 to 2012.

The growing number and magnitude of oil train incidents has caught the attention of government agencies charged with overseeing transportation safety (see January 10, 2014 alert) including the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which recently issued recommendations on oil train safety to PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).  The long-awaited report for the Keystone project also noted the steady increase in crude oil shipments by rail in the past 2 years and undertook a comparison of the safety of rail and pipeline transport during the period from 2002 to 2012.  The Keystone report pointed out that while pipelines released larger quantities of product than trains (on the basis of ton-miles and barrels transported), oil spills occurred more frequently on trains than on pipelines during the 10-year period.  Given the large volumes of oil released from trains in 2013, however, last year’s data (once finalized) is likely to reflect that pipelines were the safer transportation option by both measures.