Understanding Government and Railroad Strategy for Crude Oil Transportation in North America
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Understanding Government and Railroad Strategy for Crude Oil Transportation in North America

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  • Alternative Title:
    NURail2012-MIT-R03 Transportation of Energy-Related Material;Transportation of Energy-Related Material;
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  • Abstract:
    On July 6, 2013, an oil-laden unit train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, killing 47 people, shocking and saddening many, and leading to significantly increased public scrutiny of crude oil transported by rail. Simultaneously, there has been intense scrutiny of proposed pipelines from the oil/tar sands in Alberta, most notably the TransCanada Keystone XL. Not only is there concern about the potential environmental impacts of the pipelines themselves, such as a potential spill of diluted bitumen, but there is also concern about the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the energy intensiveness of bitumen production and refining. Proponents argue that a denial of pipeline permits by governments in Canada and the United States would lead to more crude by rail, an outcome that pipeline supporters believe would not only be less cost effective, less safe, and less environmentally-friendly, but would also ultimately lead to the same amount of greenhouse gas being emitted from the production and refining of oil sands bitumen. Railroads, with much of the required infrastructure already in place to transport crude, usually do not need to undergo the same environmental assessments as pipelines for modest capacity expansions. As a result, when pipelines are evaluated through political and regulatory processes in Canada and the US, much of the focus is on what railroads might do if a pipeline permit is not approved, rather than what they should do. This research emphasizes the latter. The CLIOS Process, an approach for studying complex sociotechnical systems, is used to study the relationships between the oil sands production and transportation systems, the institutional actors that govern them, and the critical contemporary issues of economic development, energy security, climate change, and safety. Specifically, strategic alternatives – pipelines and railroads – for adding transportation capacity from the oil sands are identified and their performance along dimensions of societal concern are compared and contrasted. Additionally, recognizing that railroad safety is of particular concern, CAST, an accident investigation tool built on the STAMP accident causation model, is used to study the safety control structure of the Canadian railway industry that existed prior to the Lac-Mégantic accident. This research describes how environmental acceptability is implicit in advancing energy security and economic development. The research also raises questions about the acceptability of safety risks associated with rail transport of crude oil and recommends that this issue be further debated at railway management, regulatory, and political levels. Both railroad and pipeline modes are environmentally efficient and safe, and the emphasis of the conclusions is that further improving environmental performance and further improving safety should be focused on, whenever possible, not only by looking inwardly at one organization or transport mode in isolation, but also by seeking broader system-level changes.
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