Oil Trains from North Dakota to the Rescue in Philadelphia

The hazards of shipping North Dakotan crude-by-rail have been well documented and are the focus of new DOT regulations due to its volatility, but there's a more positive side to this oil and the trains that deliver it, illustrated in Philadelphia.

2 minute read

March 16, 2014, 7:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


We recently reported on demonstrations in California at a Bay Area facility that would store oil from North Dakota that would be delivered by rail.

In Philadelphia, the report [listen here] by Katie Colaneri of Philadelphia's WHYY public radio station includes a celebration from last fall as the first oil unit train arrives from North Dakota at a huge refinery carrying the same volatile crude that has stirred the fears of Pittsburg, Calif. residents.

Why the different receptions to crude-by-rail from the Bakken shale formation? In Philadelphia, the combination of cheap Bakken crude and oil unit trains means that an aging oil refinery will not have to close. "Hundreds of workers were getting pink slips," states Colaneri.

Last fall, workers in blue jumpsuits applauded as a train hauling 120 black tanker cars full of crude oil from North Dakota pulled into the 140-year-old refinery complex in South Philadelphia.

Today, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery is the single-largest consumer of North Dakota crude oil [and also "the largest oil refining complex on the U.S. Eastern seaboard", according to its website.]

However, energy analyst Kevin Lindemer with the firm IHS, tells Colaneri that pipelines would be preferable to oil trains.

Without pipelines to move it underground, increased traffic on the rails has resulted in more derailments across the country. In January, a derailment in Philadelphia left six tanker cars full of oil intact, but leaning across the tracks of a bridge that spans [the Schuylkill River] and a busy interstate. 

In addition to pipelines to replace oil trains, natural gas pipelines are needed to access Pennsylvania's abundant natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, states the refinery's CEO, Phil Rinaldi, which "would revitalize the entire region...by build(ing) a dynamic, manufacturing-based economy."

Lindemer agrees. What's holding back the region is infrastructure, he emphasizes. And infrastructure means energy pipelines.

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