Last December, the first full train carrying tar sands crude left the Canexus Bruderheim terminal outside of Edmonton, Alberta, bound for an unloading terminal somewhere in the United States.
Canadian heavy crude, as the tar sands is labeled for market purposes, had ridden the rails in very limited capacity in years previous — loaded into tank cars and bundled with other products as part of so-called “manifest” shipments. But to the best of industry analysts’ knowledge, never before had a full 100-plus car train (called a “unit train”) been shipped entirely full of tar sands crude.
Because unit trains travel more quickly, carry higher volumes of crude and cost the shipper less per barrel to operate than the manifest alternative, this first shipment from the Canexus Bruderheim terminal signaled the start of yet another crude-by-rail era — an echo of the sudden rise of oil train transport ushered in by the Bakken boom, on a much smaller scale (for now).
This overall spike in North American crude-by-rail over the past few years has been well documented, and last month Oil Change International released a comprehensive report about the trend. As explained in Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude-by-Rail in North America (and in past coverage in DeSmogBlog), much of the oil train growth has been driven by the Bakken shale oil boom. Without sufficient pipeline capacity in the area, drillers have been loading up much more versatile trains to cart the light, sweet tight crude to refineries in the Gulf, and on both coasts.