Earlier this week I was checking Facebook , when a post from Rachel Maddow’s page caught my eye; apparently a train carrying crude oil had derailed in West Virginia a day or so earlier and was still burning. I’ve tried, but cannot re-find that post. I have found several articles about the incident, such as this one. Apparently, there are no human fatalities. It’s possible the accident was caused by snow on the tracks.
What struck me, though, was the utter lack of discussion about the fire. If I hadn’t spotted the Rachel Maddow post, I wouldn’t have known about it at all. Now, the story did make the news–my husband reports having seen the story and that the fire was still burning as of this morning. This isn’t a story, therefore, of media obliviousness. But usually disaster stories don’t just make the news, they also make social media and this fire is just not trending. Nobody, except Dr. Maddow (yes, she has a PhD), is talking about it (lest readers argue that perhaps the oblivious one is Caroline, let me point out that I do know that a small town in Kentucky has jokingly issued an arrest warrant for Queen Elsa for making it snow too much. If people are talking about a news story I do hear about it, whether I want to or not).
News reports of oil spills tend to have a vagueness to them. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the reporting, as far as I can tell, but there is little discussion afterwards and I, at least, am often left with the impression that there are a lot of spills, but without a clear idea of when and where they occur or how many there really are. So, this morning I decided to do an internet search on “oil pipeline leak” and “oil train derailment” for each month of 2014. This, I hoped, would capture most of the news stories I might reasonably have heard over the past year. As it turned out, I also found several reports for 2013 while I was at it. Of course, I may have missed some in my search, and there are a lot of incidents that do not make the news, including a dozen or more in Alberta alone every month, but I figure this list is a good place to start:
- July, 2013 Train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, Lac-Megantic, Quebec. 47 people died.
- September, 2013 Oil pipeline leak in Tioga, North Dakota began. It was not discovered and stopped for months.
- October 2013 Train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed and burned, Gainford, Alberta.
- November, 2013 Train carrying crude oil derailed and burned, Aliceville, Alabama.
- December, 2013 Train carrying crude oil derailed and burned, Casselton, North Dakota.
- January, 2014 Train carrying crude oil derailed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. No injuries or fire.
- February, 2014 Train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed and spilled in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. No injury or fire, but 3000 to 4000 gallons of oil leaked.
- March, 2014 Oil pipeline leaked into the Oak Glen Nature Preserve, Ohio.
- May, 2014 Train carrying crude oil derailed, caught fire, Lynchburg, Virginia.
- May, 2014 Train carrying crude oil train, leaked, LaSalle, Colorado.
- —Crude oil pipeline burst, Los Angeles, California.
- July, 2014 Train carrying crude oil derailed, Seattle, Washington. No spill.
- October, 2014 Train carrying petroleum distillate derailed and burned, Claire, Saskatchewan.
- –Oil pipeline leak, Mooringsport, Louisiana.
- November, 2014 Empty oil train derailed in Casselton, North Dakota.
- —Oil pipeline spill, Ed Earth Creek, Alberta.
- January, 2015 Pipeline leak released fracking fluid and crude oil, Williston, North Dakota.
- –Pipeline spill contaminated Yellowstone River, Glendive, Montana.
- February, 2015 Train carrying crude oil derails and explodes, West Virginia. Still burning.
That looks like a lot, but we really don’t have enough information to be able to put all these incidents in context. For example, it’s possible that someone familiar with the freight industry would look at this list and be very impressed that it is not much longer. That most incidents are train derailments, not pipeline leaks is in line with overall trends, though–trains do have accidents more often than pipelines do, although pipeline spills are usually much bigger. There is a national conversation underway about all of these incidents–which represents the safer way to ship oil, train or pipeline, and how trains might be made safer. I could join that conversation, but right now I’m not going to.
Instead, I’m asking whether all this oil moving around is worth it?
We can see that oil spills are not a rare occurrence. Even if the vast majority of crude oil shipments get where they are going without incident, some amount of spillage may be inevitable–and certainly is inevitable without a vast infrastructure improvement program of some kind. We can expect another incident somewhere in March or April–more land and water contaminated and perhaps more people injured, sick, or dead. Is shipping oil really worth this?
Now, risk all by itself is not a good reason to not do something. We do things all the time that could get us hurt, either because the risk is very small or because the benefit is worth the pain in some way. Human beings are fantastically bad at estimating risk, so I want to be very careful not to imply that a bunch of accidents are, all by themselves, a reason to abandon a whole industry. But when we weigh risk, we have to do more than look at how likely a problem is and how great the benefit could be.
On the “cost” side of the scale is how likely a problem is and how serious it is. Is the possibility, however remote, of blowing up part of Philadelphia (as could have happened last year, if one accident had been more severe than it was) worth anything that crude oil gives us? On the “benefit” side we must not only look at how big the benefit is, but also who gets that benefit.
Too often, the people who stand to gain from risky endeavors are not the same as the people who stand to lose. How many oil magnates live within a quarter mile of a railway freight line? Do oil pipelines ever travel over the lands of the wealthy? It’s worth noting that the US is a net exporter of petroleum products, so it’s not as simple as saying we benefit from the use of the oil.
We solve one problem and in so doing create a bunch more problems, which we then try to solve in turn….I know someone who takes medicine for high cholesterol, or something similar, and the medicine gives him dizzy spells. His doctor told him to put up with the dizziness and to keep taking the pills. When I heard this, I wondered what would have happened if he’d gone to his doctor with dizzy spells to begin with–would she have given him pills that raised his cholesterol as a side effect?
Let’s play a game. Let’s say we could approach the issue with a blank slate, with no committed infrastructure or cultural habit. If we were all offered the chance to have lots of cheap energy and for the wealthy among us to grow richer yet, and the price was that leaks or explosions would poison or burn a new part of the country every month or so, would we really say yes?