July 8, 2013

Why did that train explode in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec?

It's a mystery, but consider this clue:
The train was carrying crude from the region that has spearheaded the revival in the use of oil trains in North America: North Dakota's Bakken shale.... Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has enabled North Dakota to quickly become the No. 2 oil producer in the United States, but the state has few pipelines to carry its new product to market.... So the oil industry has turned to rail to move crude to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts. The train that derailed at Lac-Mégantic was bound for a refinery in New Brunswick, east of Quebec....

An important factor keeping the cost of train transport down for oil producers has been the practice of sending the crude in trains made entirely of tanker cars of oil, like the train that crashed in Lac-Mégantic. Shipping in these "unit trains," long lines of black tankers that look like a moving above-ground pipeline, is cheaper than the traditional "manifest train" that is a mix of boxcars, flatbeds, grain hoppers, and coal cars (an operator needs a "manifest," or list, to keep track of what's aboard.)  New onloading and offloading stations are being built especially for all-oil trains.

If it was sabotage, what interests did the saboteurs have in mind? They could have been opponents of fracking, but they could have been proponents of pipelines — radical environmentalists or radical opponents of environmentalism.


Meade said...

A commenter emails:

"...but they could have been proponents of pipelines — radical environmentalists or radical opponents of environmentalism."

Thanks for showing us the point where forced even-handedness becomes comedy.

Meade said...

from wholelottasplainin':

There's the possibility that the cargo wasn't ordinary crude oil, but "dilbit", or bitumen from the tar sands diluted with various relatively volatile fluids (including benzene) to render it less viscous and more easily transported via a pipeline.

No pipeline involved here, but the intensity of the explosions point to something other than plain old crude oil.

Meade said...

email from Indigo Red:

I'm concerned as to why this was an unmanned, driverless, runaway train as the media is reporting. And why is, seemingly, no one is asking? Do trains in Canada and the US travel unmanned often? Was this an ObamaTrain?

Meade said...

email from Bart Hall:

I lived just west of Lac Mégantic for many years. The train was unmanned because of a pending crew change at Nantes (common procedure) several kilometres west of Lac Mégantic and (quite importantly) almost 150 metres (about 500 feet) higher. Once the train got rolling in was on a nice downhill run until it hit downtown Mégantic where it encountered a sharp curve, numerous sidings and assorted switches, one of which was obviously in the wrong position for the train at that time. Physics and chemistry did the rest.

The unusual thing is that there had been a cabin fire in one of the engines, extinguished by the Nantes fire department. I haven't been reading much English-media about the story, but none I've seen have mentioned the earlier fire. My guess is therefore that something in the braking system got compromised by that fire and eventually leaked until the brakes released. From that point the outcome was a near-certainty. I've been in downtown Mégantic many times and when I see the photos I can barely recognize anything. There are still dozens of people missing, presumably occupants of a crowded night club near the centre of the explosions. This will be a tough one to absorb in a town of only 6,000 inhabitants.

Meade said...

email from JackOfClubs:

Proponents of pipelines are essentially proponents of oil. There is no way they would blow up an oil train just to make pipelines look more attractive. It wouldn't work and it would annoy the pig.

Meade said...

from BB:

Bart Hall, thank you for the explanation. I think the unmanned procedure will probably change very soon. I have read several American media story and none have mentioned the smaller fire in an engine cab. That's a significant point and should be followed up.

Doing a good job, Meade.

Meade said...

from TmjUtah:

An OPEC producer might have a different take on the benefits of sabotaging North American oil delivery and refining.

Just thought I'd bring that to the table, as long as we are at the chalk board.