Chicago at heart of crude oil shipments, data show
By Richard Wronski
April 3, 2015, 6:43 PM
More highly volatile crude oil passes through the Midwest, specifically the Chicago area, via railroad tank cars than anywhere else in the country, according to newly released data from the federal government..
The latest information on crude-oil-by-rail movements, the government's first accounting of such shipments, showed that 437,000 barrels of Bakken shale crude oil were shipped daily in January from North Dakota to East Coast refineries.
Since freight moving across the nation is funneled through Chicago, the nation's busiest rail hub, that crude oil is passing through the city and suburbs, experts say.
The volume of crude oil is enough to fill as many as 42 mile-long "unit trains," each with a hundred or more tank cars, traveling through the area each week. Indeed, such trains have become a common sight throughout the city and suburbs in recent years.
The new data corroborate a Tribune report last Julythat put the number of crude oil trains passing through the region at about 40 a week.
Concerns about the increasing number of crude oil trains have grown as a result of several fiery derailments in Illinois and elsewhere. A BNSF Railway train with 103 tank cars containing Bakken crude derailed and exploded in flames in a sparsely populated area south of Galena on March 5.
If that incident had occurred in the metropolitan area, thousands of people would have been forced to evacuate and enormous damage could have resulted, officials said.
The federal government's release of the data was welcomed by local officials and activists concerned about crude oil shipments passing through their communities.
"There has been some uncertainty as to how much crude was crossing the country," said Tom Weisner, the mayor of Aurora and the co-chair of a municipal coalition that has raised concerns about the trains and the safety of the tank cars that carry the oil and other hazardous materials. "Having an accurate accounting will certainly help the discussion on increasing safety along the rails."
Charles Paidock, a leader of the Chicago Greens, a grass-roots group of environmental activists, was surprised that the volume of oil isn't higher.
"We are the rail capital of the Midwest," Paidock said. "It seems a little low. The railroads will not reveal the number of trains. They won't say what's going on."
The railroad industry says it has taken steps to ensure safe shipments.
"Route selection, train speeds, track inspections and the training of personnel all reflect today's high standards established to move (crude oil) safely," according to the Association of American Railroads.
In the wake of the derailment near Galena and other incidents, the BNSF said this week it was taking additional safety measures for crude oil shipments. These include slowing crude oil trains to 35 mph in cities with more than 100,000 people and increasing track inspections.
But the harshest critics call the crude-by-rail shipments "bomb trains," primarily because of concerns about the ability of the tank cars to withstand derailments.
More than 1 million barrels of crude oil move by train across the U.S. every day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The new numbers, taken from industry and government reports, were released for the first time in order to provide "key insights" into oil-by-rail movements, the agency said.
"The new crude-by-rail data provides a clearer picture on a mode of oil transportation that has experienced rapid growth in recent years and is of great interest to policymakers, the public and industry," agency Administrator Adam Sieminski said in a statement.
Previously, comprehensive data on oil shipments have been hard to come by, with much information considered confidential by the industry and not disclosed publicly.
The agency data show that crude oil movements have increased significantly over the past five years. Bakken oil production has increased by more than 1 million barrels per day since 2010, up from 55,000 barrels in 2010, the agency said. Currently, 70 percent of Bakken production is transported by rail.
But while the growing crude-by-rail shipments have become a vital part of the U.S. oil business, the federal government and the petroleum and rail industries have been slow to respond to safety concerns, critics say.
Senators from six states that see a high volume of crude oil shipments, including Dick Durbin of Illinois, last week urged federal regulators to act soon to approve tighter safety restrictions for rail-transported crude. In a letter to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the senators said the effort to enact stricter guidelines has been slowed by the OMB's bureaucracy.
Last year the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed regulations that called for reducing train speed, better tank car design standards, enhanced communication with local first responders and the phasing out of the older, less sturdy DOT-111 tank cars from carrying the most volatile type of crude within two years. But the OMB has yet to approve the new standards and missed a congressionally mandated January deadline.
In a previous letter to the OMB, Durbin cited "tank car weakness" in the Galena derailment as well as in two other derailments involving ethanol shipments: in 2009 in Cherry Valley, near Rockford, in which a woman was killed, and in the central Illinois town of Tiskilwa in 2011.
The most devastating incident occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013 when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, wiping out dozens of buildings and killing 47 people.
The 437,000 barrels of crude oil cited by the new report would fill about 624 tank cars. A single crude oil rail car can carry about 680 to 720 barrels of crude oil. Many so-called "unit trains" haul at least 100 tank cars.
The Energy Information Administration data track the movement of crude oil by rail across five regions of the country. While the data don't show the exact routes taken by each shipment, industry experts point to Chicago as the transfer point for rail shipments from the west to the East Coast.
Documents obtained by the Tribune last year showed that as many as 40 crude oil trains roll through the Chicago area weekly. The major freight railroads disclosed the information to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
The state agency redacted information showing the specific routes the trains take through each Illinois county, even though the tracks each railroad owns and operates on are generally known and readily identifiable to the public.
The records show that as many as 30 trains a week travel through Kane, DuPage and Cook counties on the BNSF Railway. The BNSF tracks run through suburbs from Aurora and Naperville to Cicero and into Chicago.
Canadian National Railway reported it runs five to seven crude oil trains a week through Will, Cook and DuPage counties. The CN says those trains originate on the BNSF.
An average of four Canadian Pacific crude oil trains pass through Lake, Cook and DuPage counties weekly, the railroad said. The Union Pacific reported up to two trains a week through Cook and Will counties.
Although the primary haulers of Bakken crude oil into Illinois are the BNSF, Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific, trains are turned over in Cook County to CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern railroads before continuing to East Coast refineries, according to the BNSF and industry experts.