The current debate over the safety of oil trains is the latest front in the anti-industrial movement's war on fossil fuels.

When brilliant, productive industrialists discovered how to “frack” for oil, and when others built huge projects to make use of sub-arctic oil sands, they unleashed a torrent of petroleum from places in North America that had never produced much oil before—places like North Dakota and Alberta. That's oil that heats homes and powers vehicles—it's the lifeblood of our modern click-and-ship economy, empowering individuals to live, travel, and trade as we choose.

The war on oil trains

Oil cars at the Port of Albany, NYThe enemies of industry struck back. They can't admit that they just want high oil prices, so instead they act to block the oil from getting to market. President Obama has just vetoed Keystone pipeline authorization , and other pipeline projects face political obstructionism as well.

But another transport industry was ready and willing to haul the oil. The railroads.
I remember reading about oil trains in Atlas Shrugged twenty-five years ago—the idea seemed so quaint then, so 1950s. Now, across the continent, oil train shipments have risen ten-fold , and the black tank-cars can be seen on many a siding, working to take the oil to the distant, coastal refineries that were originally sited to receive foreign oil.
Today, the burgeoning oil train business is the flowing life-blood of the industrial heart of North America.

Promote safety through law, not regulation

As the oil train shipments have increased, so too have accidents involving fuel cars. My local paper, the Albany Times Union, editorialized for more regulation (do they ever editorialize for less?). I replied that oil trains represent tremendous value , and that oil trains are far less risky than, say, truck transport—there are over 100,000 road-vehicle fires each year, and hundreds die each year in those accidents.
Oil is the lifeblood of our modern click-and-ship economy.
I don't think it is a good thing that anyone die in an accident. And powerful technologies, like flying and driving, do make terrible accidents possible. A careless train operator who left his train unattended burned down a town in Quebec in 2013, killing over forty people. It may well be reasonable for the oil companies and the railroads to enhance safety. A recent train derailment in West Virginia would perhaps have been less flammable had new standards for North Dakota oil—which contains high levels of light, flammable gasses—been already put into practice.
But we have a system for dealing with risky business actions—it's called tort law. We have a well-developed law based in property rights that can, if used properly, hold firms and individuals accountable for harms they inflict coercively on others—by, say, starting fires.
This allows decisions about risk to be balanced by considerations about reward. Despite all the car and truck fires, we are far better off with cars than without them. And despite the occasional oil train crashes, we are far better off with cheaper, more abundant energy than we would be without it.
Where I live, the anti-industrialists jump at any chance to attack the energy industry. Oil trains from North Dakota are deemed bad because their oil is too light. Oil trains from Alberta are deemed bad because their oil is too heavy. The truth is, having killed off local fracking , and working to block any gas or oil pipeline , the anti-industrialists have the oil trains in their sights, and will do their best to kill them off, too.
We need to stand up for the practical use of human reason to improve human life—to get rich—to thrive—to be happy—to live.
Explore:
Auto-mobility and Freedom by Sam Kazman (September, 2001)
Fracknation : the movie.

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