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William D. Balgord, Published February 15 2014

Letter: Who wins with oil on rails?

The rumble of oil trains grows increasingly familiar across the United States. But a proposed oil pipeline vital to the future U.S. economy languishes in Washington, D.C., as it waits for approval by the Obama administration.

BNSF unit trains consisting of a mile of black tank cars haul North Dakota crude oil across the state through Fargo-Moorhead and eastward. More than 30 trains a day rumble through.

Rail improvements are underway to eliminate bottlenecks to trains on their way to refineries. In La Crosse, Wis., the BNSF is at work improving approaches to an at-grade intersection with the Canadian Pacific. Completion of BNSF double-track through that city will speed additional oil trains en route to Chicago. Upgrades elsewhere will accommodate growing numbers of those refinery bound.

Recall news accounts of a derailed oil train and resulting fire that killed 47 and destroyed the downtown of the small Quebec city of Lac-Megantic last summer. Recently, a BNSF train was involved in a derailment and spectacular fire west of Fargo. Earlier, another BNSF oil train derailed and burned down a trestle in Alabama. Thankfully, no one died in these accidents. And recently a CP train leaked oil from Red Wing, Minn., to Winona, Minn., without catching fire.

Railroads boast enviable overall safety records. But the derailment of a single oil train in a populated area could trigger a conflagration, with disastrous result.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire-Hathaway investor group purchased the BNSF in 2010. Its railway is rapidly becoming a key player moving crude from North Dakota’s oilfields to Midwest refineries. Another Berkshire subsidiary manufactures tank cars for unit trains.

Buffett and associates were supporters of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign at the same time a debate over the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline – to carry crude from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries – swirled through the State Department.

Despite prior approvals by other federal and state agencies, Obama postponed making a decision until after the election. He did not wish to upset the construction workers union that favor the project, nor environmentalists, who oppose it. Whether to proceed with or scuttle the project remains a decision in limbo a year later.

A report by the State Department concludes that building the pipeline would not significantly affect the environment. Even without the Keystone pipeline, Canadian oil would reach world markets by other less safe transportation modes.

Failure to complete remaining sections of the high-capacity pipeline would default much of Canada’s oil reserves over to China and India via a proposed pipeline to Vancouver, B.C. By completing the link into the United States and south to the Gulf states, Keystone XL would have the capacity to carry North Dakota crude through a connecting spur, eliminating most heavy rail traffic of this commodity.

Stresses added to high-trafficked lines carrying crude oil in tank cars prone to rupture on impact should concern all who live and work near railroads. Risks inherent in transport of hazardous cargo must be weighed against the benefits of policies currently favoring the BNSF and other rail carriers. A carrier reaps a million-dollar windfall each time an oil train departs the Williston Basin.

Building a modern underground pipeline through rural right-of-way in the western states reduces risks inherent in hauling flammable crude by train. It’s time to act before the nation suffers another major catastrophe.


Balgord, Ph.D., formerly worked for Pan American Petroleum and now heads Environmental & Resources Technology Inc. in Middleton, Wis.