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Ahlin: Regulation and reason in the oil train equation

By Jane Ahlin / Forum News Service

In last July’s train derailment of cars carrying North Dakota oil that occurred in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, 47 people were killed, and heat from the explosions and resulting fires was felt 1.2 miles away. According to information compiled for Wikipedia, “the bodies of five presumed victims were never found” ... but were assumed to have been “vaporized by the explosion.”

The dramatic fiery pictures from the Casselton train derailments last week brought home the horror of that recent Canadian disaster, which until this past week seemed far away and not particularly threatening. Now we are uneasy. And that’s probably a good thing.

Jane Ahlin

The fact that 675,000 barrels of oil from the Bakken — about 75 percent of total production — are shipped by rail every day of the year suggests high levels of risk for hazardous spills, but we haven’t wanted to think about it. Even the people in charge of regulation have not wanted to think about it, opting instead for sunnier scenarios. As an Associated Press article on the Casselton mishap reported, “North Dakota’s top oil regulator, Lynn Helms, told state lawmakers (a few days before the Casselton explosion) that his agency was considering crafting a report ‘to dispel this myth that (oil) is somehow an explosive, really dangerous thing to have traveling up and down rail lines.’”


To be fair, the AP article also reported that Federal Railroad Administration Associate Administrator Kevin Thompson called 2012 “the safest year in the industry’s history, and that hazardous material releases are down 16 percent over the last decade despite the uptick in oil train accidents.”

Those of us on the sidelines would like to think the two notions — greater safety in hazardous material transport and more oil train accidents — are incompatible pieces of information (if one is true, the other can’t be). But they aren’t. The problem isn’t accident rates; the problem is the volume of oil train traffic and the kind of accidents that can occur when something goes wrong. As happened in Quebec, one mistake can cause monumental tragedy.

Think for a moment what might have happened had the two trains that derailed near Casselton instead derailed in downtown Fargo. Think of the businesses, the restaurants and the condominiums that might be affected. In Lac-Megantic, “blazing oil flowed over the ground … enter(ing) the town’s storm sewer (system) and emerg(ing) as huge fires towering from other storm sewer drains, manholes and even chimneys and basements of buildings in the area.” Along with many homes, over a hundred businesses were “destroyed, displaced or rendered inaccessible.”

As the mayor of Lac-Megantic made clear, the loss of life was not the only devastating result. He said, “We will rebuild … (but) very old buildings, heritage and architecture all disappeared ... no one realized the magnitude and now we are starting to understand the consequences.”

Given our experiences with floods, we ought to have an inkling of what he was talking about.

As a state, we’ve been holding our collective breath, afraid that any reining in of the great fracking boom will doom the accompanying prosperity North Dakota is experiencing. (We’ve been through bust before, and we prefer boom.)

Thus, when North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem proposes extra protection for “extraordinary places,” heritage sights and places of natural beauty, there’s immediate pushback that oil production can’t wait while the state dithers about preservation.

When gas flaring is questioned, the top priority is to not inconvenience the oil companies.

Now the issue is public safety. (Are old oil cars too easily punctured? Do chemical contaminants from fracking make oil more combustible?) Neither asking questions nor acting on the answers is anti-oil. But not acting until we suffer a catastrophe is anti-everybody.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for Forum News Service. Email her at