Montana Crude Rail Routes Revealed


An analysis of waybills - freight receipts kept by railroad companies - shows that the vast majority of crude oil traveling on rails comes from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and moves on large trains that can be more than 100 cars long. This map shows a time-lapse view of where oil trains came from from 2012. For a full explanation of this data, see, “Train Waybills Unlock Crude Oil Mysteries.”

A dozen or more trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken region are moving across northern Montana every week, skirting the edge of Glacier National Park. More trains -- far fewer in number - pass through populated regions farther south.

Governor Steve Bullock released the route information this week, making Montana the latest state after Washington to buck railroads’ requests to keep the information out of public hands.

Federal officials began requiring railroad companies to provide route information to state governments this month. A steep rise in shipments in the past few years has led to a number of dangerous oil train accidents.

Some rail carriers have been working out deals with states to withhold the data from the public. But, Montana says state open records laws require route information be released in their state. Andy Huff is Chief Legal Counsel in the Montana Governor’s office. He points to the state’s constitution, which has a very strong provision regarding the public’s right to know.

“(It) is a constitutional right for Montanans and people in Montana to examine government documents,” he said. “And the only way we can prevent the public from viewing documents is if there’s a privacy interest that outweighs the public right to know.”

The new crude oil disclosure rules come from the Federal Department of Transportation. Trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota and Montana now have to tell states when and where those trains are rolling through. Bakken oil is believed to be more volatile than oil from other regions.

The lack of public knowledge about the crude shipments has led to concern among many.

“There’s a rail line right in the middle of downtown Billings. There’s one right in the middle of downtown Missoula, some of our biggest towns in Montana,” said Derf Johnson, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Montana Environmental Information Center. “The devastation that could be caused if something were to go wrong, it’s incredibly concerning.”

An oil train explosion in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec killed almost fifty people last summer. This past April, hundreds were evacuated from downtown Lynchburg, Virginia after another fiery crash. The federal government wants first responders and emergency planners to know about these trains so they can be prepared for a worst case scenario. Railroad companies have been arguing that’s all who should know. Several states like Wyoming and Colorado have agreed with the railroads and have said they will not publicly release the data.

According to Inside Energy data analysis, the rail company BNSF ships by far the most Bakken crude on its trains--80 percent in fact. BNSF has said the release of this information harms their competitiveness, and they say it could compromise security (we have reported there may be other reasons.)

Huff said they asked the Federal Railroad Administration about the companies’ concerns. “They told us no, that it wasn’t sensitive security information,” he said.

In a statement, BNSF said they will continue to supply the route information to state agencies. What happens then is apparently up to the states.

Environmentalist Derf Johnson is happy the public will have this information, but he hopes more steps are taken soon, such as increasing safety standards surrounding oil trains, increasing track inspections, and lowering speed limits.