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U.S. moves more oil out of North Dakota by rail than the Trans-Alaskan pipeline

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Credit: Matthew Cavanaugh/Boston Globe

Despite the disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, transporting oil by rail is likely to increase in the coming years. In many cases, transport by rail is more flexible by allowing access to markets and oil plays that aren’t served by pipelines, and requires less stringent environmental reviews.

The train that crashed in Quebec was carrying oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and raises an important question: how much oil is transported on railroads in the United States?

The answer is staggering.

Currently, half of all oil coming out of the Bakken shale is transported by railroad (more than the third by pipelines). In its Draft Assessment of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the U.S. State Department estimates that by the end of this year 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil will be carried out of the Bakken on rail cars.

Source: U.S. Department of State

The amount of oil transported out of the Bakken region by trains has by orders of magnitudes in the past several years. In 2008, just 9,500 bpd were shipped out of the Bakken via rail. By 2010, the volume increased to 50,000 bpd, and ten-fold to 500,000 in 2012.

Transporting oil by rail is expected to continue growing. The U.S. State Department projects that the United States could have the capacity to transport up to 2.7 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil via rail by 2016 (note: this does not mean that volume will actually be transported, only what is feasible).

This capacity would move oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, Eagle Ford play in Texas, Permian Basin in Texas, Woodford/Anadarko region in Oklahoma, Utica shale in Ohio, and Niobrara shale in Colorado and Wyoming.

For a frame of reference, the 800-mile long Trans-Alaskan Pipeline has a maximum capacity of 2.18 million bpd. In other words, by 2016, the United States could be moving more oil by rail than the entire Trans-Alaskan pipeline.

Even today, more oil is moved out of the Bakken Shale on rail than out of the North Slope via pipeline: the volume of oil transported by the pipeline was around 600,000 bpd in 2012 – down from its peak of just over 2 million bpd in 1988.

The growth of oil-by-rail capacity leads some to think federal and state governments should review rules – especially in light of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec disaster. Jason Bordoff, Director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy said in an interview on Platts Energy Week TV that “whenever something changes this quickly, it’s worth, I think, federal regulators and state regulators sort of stepping back and just making sure that the existing rules that we have in place are adequate to deal with the changes on the ground.”

There is no question that rail capacity can be added at a rate to meet growing production across the United States. The rail system scaled up to accommodate coal production in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, which produces nearly 40 percent of the nation’s coal – nearly all of it transported by rail.

In 1980, only 99 tons per year of coal were transported out of the Powder River Basin by rail. That number increased to nearly 500 million tons per year by 2008 (for an average increase of 14 million tons per year).

The overall growth rate looks similar for both coal and oil by train:

Source: U.S. Department of State

As many analysts and experts foresee continued domestic oil production for the near and medium term, it is in both government’s and industry’s interests to make sure that the massive increase in oil transport is done safely.

For more information, read the U.S. State Department’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Assessment for the Keystone XL pipeline project (PDF).

 

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David Cummings 9:57 pm 07/17/2013

    Interesting. I did not know that so much oil was transported by rail. It makes sense. A lot of the track is already there and it has to be easier to add more track (and modern oil tanker cars) than to build pipelines.

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  2. 2. MultiWoman 6:05 am 07/18/2013

    It makes sense to review the regulation of a service when the production load increases substantially. There may be existing, unnoticed fragilities.

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