Preventing oil transport accidents

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Ernesto F. Herrera

Ernesto F. Herrera

A few days before 2013 ended, in North Dakota, US, a freight train carrying crude oil collided with a train carrying grain that had derailed earlier.

The massive train accident sent fireballs shooting up more than 100 feet, and left the oil train in flames, but by sheer luck no one was killed or hurt. Had it occurred just a few hundred meters farther into a nearby town (Casselton, with 2,400 residents) it would surely have been more deadly and disastrous.

The accident one again highlighted the need for more pipelines to transport oil instead of doing it by any other means, such as trucking, shipping or by rail.

North Dakota is brimming with crude oil nowadays, producing nearly 950,000 barrels of oil a day. There’s a desperate need to move all that to markets on the Gulf Coast and East Coast, and some 700,000 bpd is shipped by rail, because the oil boom has outpaced pipeline construction, forcing producers to rely on trains.


The recent train wreck though was the fourth of its kind in North America in the past year, adding pressure for federal action, or for the energy industry to impose more safeguards.

While some critics have called for enhanced rail safety, including the type of cars that are used (arguing they should have new safety features to avoid puncture, explosions and derailment), others say more oil pipelines are needed to reduce train traffic.

The rail industry in the US, is now hauling more crude than at any time in its history and the number of rail accidents only offers more evidence that oil transport by trains is patently unsafe.

Oil pipeline spills rare
In contrast, unlike rail accidents, pipeline spills remain rare.

Indeed, transporting oil by any other means other than pipelines seems a lot riskier. The list of perils transporting large quantities of oil products over land is just as long.

Do you remember, for instance, the fiery oil truck accident that killed 22 people, injured 100 others, and caused some SR300 million in property damage in November 2012 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia?

Among those killed in the accident was Filipino Florentino Santiago. Another Filipino was involved in the accident, truck driver Robin Kebeng.

Kebeng blamed faulty brakes for the deadly truck explosion. He said his truck may not have gone through proper maintenance. Other speculations were that he fell asleep behind the wheel and that he might not have enough experience driving trucks, much more one that was transporting highly flammable substances.

Still another report said that Kebeng’s cousin, who drove another fuel truck behind Kebeng’s truck as part of a convoy, noticed fuel leaking from Kebeng’s truck. The cousin texted Kebeng about the leak and, in fear of his safety, Kebeng allegedly jumped out of the fuel tanker. The unmanned tanker then slammed straight into a flyover bridge and exploded.

We’ve had our share of oil trucking accidents, although thankfully with fewer casualties, because no deadly explosions occurred. You’ve probably seen how some oil delivery drivers drive. It’s no surprise they figure in accidents.

For instance, in October 2012, nine people were killed and nine others were injured when a Victory Liner bus loaded with more than 40 passengers collided with an oil tanker on the Maharlika Highway at the Science City of Muñoz in Nueva Ecija.

Most of the fatalities were bus passengers. The tanker driver and the bus driver were also killed.

The spate of road accidents involving buses, trucks and jeepneys that we saw last Christmas, including the passenger bus that plunged from the Skyway in Parañaque killing 18 people on the morning of Simbang Gabi, only offers more evidence that bad driving here routinely claims the life of innocent citizens.

What more if these bad drivers are behind the wheels of oil trucks? If you’re driving a truck carrying large quantities of highly combustible fuel, then the results of driver negligence can be a lot more disastrous.

Transporting oil over water has its perils too. In August last year, an oil barge hired by Petron Corp. spilled oil that affected at least four towns in Cavite.

A lot of experts, indeed, seem to agree that we shouldn’t be transporting huge quantities of oil by trains, ships or trucks. In many countries, including the US, they want more pipelines to do this.

We have pipelines here in the Philippines too, like the 117-kilometer Batangas-to-Manila white oil pipeline that is currently closed because of a case that has been pending in the Supreme Court for three years, going four.

The Department of Energy had already recommended the reopening of this pipeline and said it was safe to operate so why not use it?

Reopening the oil pipeline will certainly reduce the number of dangerous tankers plying petroleum products, as well as help ease our horrendous traffic.

It’s time for the Supreme Court to resolve this case. Let’s not wait for our own fiery accident.

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