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Published February 05 2014

Forum editorial: Oil on rails an ongoing saga in ND

Forum Communications Co.’s series “The Crude Frontier” is putting in broad context the huge challenges associated with moving Bakken light crude oil by rail. The reporting, done primarily by journalists from The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald, comprises the most comprehensive examination thus far of actual and potential consequences of the startling increase in the number of tank-car trains that are carrying hazardous crude across North Dakota and the nation. The series will continue at intervals.

There should be no doubt about the significant change in risk associated with oil tanker rail traffic. The statistics are clear:

• From 1971 through 2012, 793,000 gallons of oil was spilled from trains. In 2013, that number was 1.2 million gallons – in just one year.

• In 2008, eight crude-by-rail spills were reported. In 2012, 88 spills were reported. Last year, 120 spills were reported. The trend cannot be denied.

• The two largest by volume spills occurred last year: 749,000 gallons in November in Aliceville, Ala.; 450,000 gallons in December near Casselton, N.D. Those two spills dwarf previous incidents in 1980 and 1990.

The rail industry is fond of quoting the statistic that accurately proclaims 99.997 percent of hazardous material shipments arrive without incident. But as is always the caveat with statistics, break it down. When the industry says all hazardous materials, it means just that. The category is broad. It includes everything from anhydrous ammonia to nuclear materials, from solvents to explosives. And crude oil.

A more honest assessment would break out the percentage of crude oil – specifically the more dangerous volatile crudes – that get to destinations without derailments and spills. Even better would be a statistical analysis of the increases in crude oil incidents in the past few years.

All aspects of North Dakota’s Bakken oil play are moving targets. The stories change from month to month; the benefits, risks and consequences shift in relation to each other every day. One of the purposes of “The Crude Frontier” is to inform readers of one of the more complex and worrisome aspects of the boom: getting Bakken crude from the oil fields to markets. That transportation story, whether focusing on rail or pipeline, will keep our reporting team busy for some time.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.