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Commentary

Oil Trains Run Because Pipelines Don’t

California needs a reasonable balance of cheap, safe oil pipelines and flexible oil trains

Some politicians in California, and people like me who live near railroad tracks, are waking up to the fact that four times as much oil was shipped to California by train over the last year than the previous year. Most of it was heading to refineries here in Southern California. As the oil trains have increased, so have complaints and environmental concerns about them. Rather than responding to calls to restrict these trains and further raise our gasoline prices, however, state officials need to address the need for oil pipelines connecting California with the Midwest.

As oil production in the United States has exploded, shifting us from an oil-importing to an oil-exporting nation, it has created the new problem of getting all that oil from the middle of the country to refineries on the edges of the nation; mainly to California, Texas, Louisiana, New York and New Jersey. Traditionally, oil has moved mostly by pipelines. But in recent years few new pipelines were built thanks in part to strong opposition from environmental activists, so oil trains have picked up most of the slack. This is particularly true in California, where few oil pipelines connect to oilfields east of the Rocky Mountains.

The rail industry claims a 99 percent safety record, but with the rapid increase of oil trains on railroads, concerns about safety are legitimate, as demonstrated by recent severe oil train accidents in North Dakota and Quebec, the latter killing 47 people. A report by the National Transportation Safety Board emphasizes the seemingly obvious, “that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable materials are on a train involved in an accident.”

Oil pipelines are far from perfect, with leaks happening more often than oil train accidents. But pipeline spills almost never threaten human lives. Beyond safety, moving oil through pipelines is cheaper and more efficient than transporting it via train, and emits far fewer greenhouse gases.

Yet plans to build new oil pipelines between California and Texas have been scuttled. Environmental activists want to block construction of new pipelines, in part, to reduce the state’s access to oil, thus keeping gas prices high in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Businesses have realized they need to expand oil trains for now, even if more expensive in the long run. Investment is going to new rail terminals in the Central Valley and Mojave Desert to connect the flood of oil trains into California’s internal oil pipeline network. Money is also being spent to expand pipelines in Canada so more oil can be transported by ship to California refineries – a much more expensive option than a direct pipeline, but one that can be done in the current political climate.

It is no surprise in California that a rapid reaction to the growth of oil trains is to regulate, restrict and limit their numbers. Some environmentalists and local officials have called to halt the trains altogether, while Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposes a new tax on oil trains to discourage them. Instead of burdensome restrictions and taxes on oil trains, California needs a reasonable balance of cheap and safe oil pipelines and flexible oil trains to connect our refineries to oil supplies.

Policymakers should work quickly to permit some new pipelines with the latest safety technology and practices and thus reduce the waste, emissions and higher prices that come from ill-advised attempts to choke off the state’s access to oil.

Dr. Adrian Moore is vice president at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Adrian Moore

Adrian Moore, Ph.D., is vice president of policy at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. Moore leads Reason's policy implementation efforts and conducts his own research on topics such as privatization, government and regulatory reform, air quality, transportation and urban growth, prisons and utilities.

Moore, who has testified before Congress on several occasions, regularly advises federal, state and local officials on ways to streamline government and reduce costs.

In 2008 and 2009, Moore served on Congress' National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. The commission offered "specific recommendations for increasing investment in transportation infrastructure while at the same time moving the Federal Government away from reliance on motor fuel taxes toward more direct fees charged to transportation infrastructure users." Since 2009 he has served on California's Public Infrastructure Advisory Commission.

Mr. Moore is co-author of the book Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry said, "Speaking from our experiences in Texas, Sam Staley and Adrian Moore get it right in Mobility First." World Bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

Moore is also co-author of Curb Rights: A Foundation for Free Enterprise in Urban Transit, published in 1997 by the Brookings Institution Press, as well as dozens of policy studies. His work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Orange County Register, as well as in, Public Policy and Management, Transportation Research Part A, Urban Affairs Review, Economic Affairs, and numerous other publications.

In 2002, Moore was awarded a World Outsourcing Achievement Award by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Michael F. Corbett & Associates Ltd. for his work showing governments how to use public-private partnerships and the private sector to save taxpayer money and improve the efficiency of their agencies.

Prior to joining Reason, Moore served 10 years in the Army on active duty and reserves. As an noncommissioned officer he was accepted to Officers Candidate School and commissioned as an Infantry officer. He served in posts in the United States and Germany and left the military as a Captain after commanding a Heavy Material Supply company.

Mr. Moore earned a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California, Irvine. He holds a Master's in Economics from the University of California, Irvine and a Master's in History from California State University, Chico.