Crude Oil Transport from the Heartland Derailed
There are easier ways to put oil into the water. In fact, we’d rather the oil was on the water, carried by a barge.
The all-too-familiar news of a train derailment, this time in Virginia, hit the news wire last week. The train, reportedly carrying Bakken crude oil destined for storage and eventual deployment to a refinery for processing, derailed and burst into flames, spilling as much as 800 barrels into the James River. According to Reuters, the accident caused a 9 mile-long sheen in the river – one which ironically is lauded as one America’s biggest inland marine highway stories. But the incident, as bad as it was, only showed how much worse the problem could’ve been, and at the very same time, how easy it would be to all but mitigate the risk of this ever happening again.
In the sixth train derailment since mid-summer of last year – three involving the highly flammable Bakken crude oil – the risk of shipping this type of cargo in vehicles that could be much better constructed for the task was brought into the hot spotlight. Separately, U.S. regulators, on the very same day, finally submitted a long-awaited proposal for more stringent rail car standards. If approved, the new rule will increase costs for shippers and may force the rail operators to shed aging and outdated equipment. In the process, the same rule may open the door for inland transportation providers to get their foot in the door and on a more competitive playing field. It can’t happen soon enough.
In contrast to their rail car cousins, tank barges on the water have long had to comply with a long laundry list of safety rules, including but not limited to double hulls, vapor recovery, inert gas systems (in some cases), closed measurement systems and a myriad of other equipment requirements. New rules that could bring rail cars into closer compliance would be a welcome change. It could also change the economic model which today dictates how these cargoes are moved from here to there.
For those who lament the relatively “slow” speed on inland transit, last week’s derailed train was moving at just 24 MPH when it derailed. Apparently, speed is not the issue. Beyond this, the average speed of most trains when traveling in close proximity to the nation’s train hubs is a paltry 9 MPH, or about the same speed as the typical inland barge tow. So much for efficiency.
Just last week, at the annual meeting of Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals Association (IRPT) in St. Louis, IRPT President Dennis Wilmsmeyer told MarPro that IRPT remains dedicated to promoting the fight for the inland rivers, wherever and whenever possible. Asked about the likelihood of increased petroleum cargoes entering the rivers from the ongoing energy boom to the north, he insisted, “The only holdup to more oil on the river is the strength of the rail and trucking lobbies.” And, therein lays the problem.
Speaking with a louder, but not necessarily more correct voice, trucking and rail advocates are unfortunately winning the war of words in Washington. With almost 650,000 barrels of crude oil being produced daily in North Dakota, the need for safe, reliable and environmentally correct transport for this output is obvious. Already proven to be cleanest mode of transport in terms of stack emissions per ton/mile when compared to truck and rail, the safety advantages of barge transport are now just coming to the attention of regulators, as well. The inland barge industry, over the course of the past three decades, has markedly reduced its environmental footprint, increased its safety record, besting its rail and trucking competitors in virtually all metrics. But, don’t take my word for it, ask the U.S. Government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Clearly, the logistics do not exist to move all of the crude all the way to its ultimate destination, solely on the water. On the other hand, there are many places along the way where that crude oil could be safely transferred to the water – where it belongs. Failing that, the highly flammable crude oil continues on its way, traversing numerous, densely populated residential areas along the way. And – a half dozen times in less than one year’s time – we all know what happens then.
Tens of thousands of containers have been removed from the I-64 corridor over the past few years using the now famous I-64 ‘container on barge’ Express. I’m betting the Commonwealth of Virginia is wishing today that it had insisted (last week) upon the same routing for the crude oil rolling on the tracks alongside the James River. Had they done so, some of that crude oil would now be safely in the shore tanks as intended, and not in the James River.
On the grand scale of things, this was a fairly minor event. Next time, they may not be so lucky. Let’s work towards putting the oil on the water, not in it. – MarPro.
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.