Crude by Rail: The Urban Risks of Fossil Fuel Transportation

KATIE MCCONNELL (FES M.E.Sc. 2017)

The urban impacts of fossil fuel consumption—primarily, air pollution—are well documented. Yet a recent shift in oil transportation poses new environmental and human health threats to cities across the country. Less attention has been paid to an existing infrastructure that is quietly taking on more and more oil, in so doing exposing both rural and urban communities to a significant risk
—railroads.
Since 2011, the practice of “crude by rail” has grown significantly, with long chains of oil tankers winding their way alongside rivers, through reservations, and in all sizes of cities and towns across the United States and Canada. This new fossil fuel transportation mode has brought with it an increasing number of train derailments, in which highly combustible crude oil can spill, catch fire, and even explode. In the worst spill to date, the burning oil and explosions from a 63-car spill razed the downtown core of Lac Mégantic, Canada and killed 47 people.
Hundreds of municipalities with rail lines running through them—ranging from large urban centers to small towns—are now faced with serious planning and policy questions. How can municipalities protect newly vulnerable communities from oil spills?