Skip to main content

Stop shipping volatile oil by rail

By Wayde Schafer, Special to CNN
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
Most of the 73-car train derailed in Lac-Megantic; cars full of oil exploded and burned.
Most of the 73-car train derailed in Lac-Megantic; cars full of oil exploded and burned.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wayde Schafer: Many communities have rail lines running right through them
  • Schafer: North Dakota crude oil loaded onto trains causes a tragedy in Canada
  • N.D. oil production rose by 10 times since 2011, more and and heavier trains needed
  • It's too dangerous, he says. Trains go through towns and weren't designed for oil

Editor's note: Wayde Schafer is the organizing representative of the Dacotah chapter of the Sierra Club.

(CNN) -- The tragedy of the train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, has brought home just how small our world has become. Oil that was drilled in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields is loaded onto rail cars and passes through a small Canadian community and shatters their world in an instant. All my thoughts and best wishes go out to the families and emergency responders in the midst of this human and environmental catastrophe.

Everyone is touched by this man-made disaster -- 20 killed, 30 missing -- because so many communities have a rail line running right through the middle of town. Here in North Dakota, like all over the U.S. and Canada, towns grew up around the railroad lines. They brought people in to help settle the state and shipped the farm and manufacturing products to other parts of the world.

But the increase in the amount of volatile crude oil being transported by rail from North Dakota's Bakken fields has brought a new and troubling set of problems to the debate about our continued dependency on fossil fuels, and particularly oil, as an energy source.

Railroad engineers did not have transporting oil in mind when they laid out the routes. They did not avoid population centers, rivers, or environmentally sensitive areas. They were only concerned with getting from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner possible. In fact, trains carrying oil tanker cars run just two blocks from my office, right through the heart of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Rail is the most efficient way to move freight, and Sierra Club is a big fan of rail for transporting people and conventional freight. But moving extreme fossil fuels, like Bakken shale or Alberta tar sands, is a different story entirely.

These fuels are "extreme" because they are more toxic and more carbon intensive than conventional oil. They are also more dangerous to transport than conventional sources of oil. Production in the Bakken fields has increased nearly 10 times since 2011. To move all this crude, oil rail companies are running longer, heavier trains. And they are running them farther than ever before, bringing crude to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts.

The regulatory framework for train safety wasn't designed for crude oil trains, and the rail and safety infrastructure is out of date and not up to the task. A state transportation safety spokesman in Maine this week said that the Lac-Magantic disaster is "on the same parallel as a tractor-trailer accident. It's private commerce and we don't get involved." This catastrophe proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the transportation of Bakken shale requires much more vigilant oversight.

It's too early to draw conclusions from the ongoing catastrophe in Lac-Megantic, but there's one simple lesson that we should not ignore. Bakken shale, tar sands, and other extreme fossil fuels threaten our towns and our communities. We can't afford the additional cost, in safety or pollution that these fuels bring. And with growing efficiency and with renewable sources of energy, we don't need them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wayde Schafer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT