Crude Oil Rail Shipments Sabotage Freedom of Information Act

Repost from Forbes

Crude Oil Rail Shipments Sabotage Freedom of Information Act

By James Conca, May 5, 2015 @ 4:40 AM

New regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation declare that details about crude oil rail shipments are exempt from public disclosure (Tri-City Herald).

This ends DOT’s existing regulations that required railroads to share with state officials, and the public, information about shipping large volumes of dangerous crude oil by rail. These disclosure requirements were put in place last year after a Bakken crude oil train-wreck in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Now, railroads will only have to share this information with emergency responders who will be mum. And the information will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act as well as public records and state disclosure laws (SSI).

Better response, slower speeds and safer rail cars are needed to stem the rise of crude oil rail car accidents. Transparency would be nice, too, although that took a real hit last week with the new regulations from the Department of Transportation. Source: National Transportation Safety Board

True, the new regulations do cover critical oil train operations in terms of “speed restrictions, braking systems, and routing, and adopts safety improvements in tank car design standards and a sampling and classification program for unrefined petroleum-based products.” All good things long needed to address the growing dangers in rail transport of crude.

But after the Lynchburg derailment and inferno, the feds required railroads to notify emergency response agencies if shipments over a million gallons crude oil were going through their states. Railroads complied, but asked states to keep that information confidential.

Most states refused (McClatchy).

Since then, the industry argued that details about the crude oil rail shipments were sensitive from a security and customer protection standpoint and should not be available to the public, although it’s more likely they just don’t want to get hassled by a public trying to restrict shipments from going through their towns, across their rivers and along their coasts.

At first, the Federal Railroad Administration disagreed with the industry (Federal Register), saying that information about the shipments was not sensitive from any standpoint.

But they seemed to have quietly caved to industry pressure.

The twin forces of the new North American energy boom and the lack of pipeline capacity have combined to suddenly and dramatically increase crude oil shipping by rail. The energy boom is not going away, and the XL pipeline is on hold indefinitely, so the increase in rail will continue.

Crude is a nasty material, very destructive when it spills into the environment, and very toxic when it contacts humans or animals. It’s not even useful for energy, or anything else, until it’s chemically processed, or refined, into suitable products like naphtha, gasoline, heating oil, kerosene, asphaltics, mineral spirits, natural gas liquids, and a host of other products.

Thus, the need to get it to the refineries that can handle it, mostly along the coasts. Without new pipelines, it’s going to go by rail.

But fiery derailments of crude oil trains in North America are becoming almost frequent, along with many simple spills (dot111). Every minute of every day, shipments of two million gallons of crude are traveling over a thousand miles in hundred-tank-car trains (PHMSA.gov), delivering as much oil as is expected by the Keystone XL Pipeline.

A clear example of this danger came on July 6, 2013, when a train carrying 72 tank cars, and over 2,000,000 gallons of Bakken oil shale crude from the Williston Basin of North Dakota, derailed in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Much of the town was destroyed and forty-seven people were killed.

According to billionaire Warren Buffett, these new federal standards for shipping crude oil by rail will definitely slow-up the industry, and as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF railroad and its Union Tank Car business, he should know (Tri-City Herald).

Buffett says railroads are critical for transporting potentially dangerous products across the United States, and he thinks it makes more sense for railroads to haul them instead of trucks or pipelines, a controversial stand given the historical data (Pick Your Poison).

So what is the safest way to move crude oil?

The volume of oil spilled per billion-ton-miles for each mode of transport - truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat. But it depends upon your definition of worse. Source: Congressional Research Service R43390

The short answer is: truck worse than train worse than pipeline worse than boat (Oilprice.com). But that’s only for human death and property destruction. For the amount of oil spilled per billion-ton-miles, it’s truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat (Congressional Research Service). Even more different is for environmental impact, where it’s boat worse than pipeline worse than truck worse than rail.

But the accident frequency trend is against rail. Oil trains are getting bigger and towing more and more tanker cars. From 1975 to 2012, trains were short and spills were rare and small, with about half of those years having no spills above a few gallons (EarthJustice.org). Then came 2013, in which more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents than was spilled in the previous thirty-seven years.

The danger seems to be centered in the rail tank cars themselves (The Coming Oil Train Wreck). If these new regulations makes the rail cars safer, makes them go slower and routes them around environmentally sensitive or vulnerable areas, that’s wonderful.

But I don’t see why we aren’t allowed to know when the crude oil trains are near us.

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