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May 14, 2014

Crude oil brings boom times and safety concerns to North Dakota


In North Dakota an oil boom has boosted the state’s economy, but as the industry is projected to grow, a series of catastrophic – and at times deadly – crude oil train accidents has brought new scrutiny to the practice of hauling oil by rail.

Six years ago, U.S. railways carried just 9,500 carloads of crude each year. But today, as huge amounts of oil are produced in states like North Dakota far from traditional pipeline infrastructure, that figure has jumped to more than 400,000.

And with oil train derailments in Alabama, Pennsylvania and most recently downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, regulators and policymakers are growing concerned about the safety of moving oil by rail.

“It’s just not safe,” said Don Morrison of the Dakota Resource Council. “They didn’t look down the road to figure out how are we going to get this [crude oil] to market in a safe way.”

While most of the seven and a half million barrels of oil produced each day in the U.S. travels by pipeline, 70 percent of the million barrels coming out of North Dakota each day goes by rail. That’s because most of the country’s refining capacity is far from North Dakota. That means North Dakota crude has to travel hundreds of miles to be processed into gasoline for cars or fuel for jet engines.

Oil pipelines are difficult to get approved and built, but railroads already cross the area.

Oil production in North Dakota is expected to climb 70 percent by 2020, and most of that oil will travel by rail.

Warm up questions


  1. Where does gasoline come from? How much do we rely on gasoline? Qualify your answer.
  2. What is the trend in oil transportation on rail cars? Use the graph above to answer the question. What are some possible reasons that could explain this trend?
Discussion questions
  1. What are the different ways that crude oil is transported? What are the risks and benefits to each method?
  2. Why does North Dakota transport 70 percent of its crude by railcars?
  3. Although 99.7 percent of all trains make it safely to their destination, there are still concerns that about safety in light of three recent crashes in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Virginia. What are some of the safety issues concerning railcar transportation?
  4. What were some of the safety regulations suggested by the DOT regarding railcar transport of crude? Have safety issues been adequately addressed and enforced by the DOT? Explain your answer.
Writing prompt

Imagine that you are the governor of North Dakota. A railcar carrying crude recently crashed in your hometown putting the town’s 2,500 inhabitant’s lives in jeopardy. The fire from the crash burned continually for an entire day and it had been suggested that residents evacuate their homes. On one hand, you value you the life of your citizens above anything else, but on the other hand railcar accidents are extremely rare and the economy of your state is flourishing because of the oil boom.

First, what do you decide to do about continuing the transport of crude in North Dakota? Do you decrease it? Do you regulate it more? Do you not change anything at all? Next, support your argument with convincing evidence from the text and video. Remember, you are up for reelection this fall and there are many voters on each side of the issue. Convince them all that you are doing the best you can for the state of North Dakota.

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