Oil trains create 'virtual' pipeline with sometimes undisclosed routes [w/video]

The Wall Street Journal has a story on issues surrounding the "virtual pipeline," and it's hard to know where to begin sorting out what's what. The easy part is defining our terms: a virtual pipeline is the mile-long, or longer, hookup of railroad tanker cars that carry oil from places like North Dakota to refineries throughout the country. The issue in the Journal piece is that the oil trains aren't bound by the same safety regimen as traditional pipelines, and that their routes are often state-mandated secrets due to the fear of a terrorist attack. With the virtual pipelines moving through dense urban areas, the report appears to contend that such constraints on safety and knowledge put the public at higher risk if something goes wrong, if not outright danger.

The controversy isn't new, nor unusual - the National Transportation Safety Board made three new recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration on the subject in February, the Toronto Star just covered the same thing in April, a New Jersey paper covered it in July and a Minnesota paper covered it 90 days ago. As the energy boom has, well, boomed, and railroad companies have looked for freight business to supplement and remedy the decline of coal shipping, rail transport of crude oil products has increased magnificently. With that, cities here in the US and in Canada have asked a lot more questions about how to keep that liquid black economy running and keep everyone safe, worried about first responder preparedness and the quality of train manifests meant to detail the cargo. The Lac-Mégantic train derailment and fire in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people only pressed the urgency.

Questions about the secrecy make sense, all the more so because the attempt at secrecy seems absurd; how much of a secret is a train that's a mile long, that has DOT hazardous materials placards identifying the kind of substance in each car, has passed amateur trainspotting bloggers all along its route, and that can sit still in the middle of a city for hours at a time waiting for space to open up at the destination?

Yet we wonder why the transport of crude is what's banging the alarm bells – trains carry all kinds of hazardous materials through cities every day, including radioactive substances. When the Department of Homeland Security put together a document called "National Planning Scenarios" in 2004, examining terrorist targets, it was rail cars full of chlorine that ranked alongside dirty bombs and the nerve gas sarin; a story in the Washington Post referenced the suggestion that a single 90-ton tanker car of chlorine could put three million lives at risk in an urban area, while the EPA said an attack at a chlorine plant near New York City could endanger 12 million people. And guess what: almost all chlorine is transported by rail, every car carrying it slapped with a DOT 1017 placard on its side. On the other hand, there's a lot more crude in transit than chlorine.

Scroll down below to check out the Journal video on the matter and decide for yourself, and because the debate involves terrorism, environmental issues and a lack of alternative infrastructure like traditional pipelines, don't expect it to be cleared up quickly.

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