Tag Archives: Ethanol

Rail Industry Requests Massive Loophole in Oil-by-Rail Safety To Extend Bomb Trains Well Beyond 2025

Repost from DeSmogBlog

Rail Industry Requests Massive Loophole in Oil-by-Rail Safety To Extend Bomb Trains Well Beyond 2025

By Justin Mikulka, July 21, 2016 – 13:00

In the most recent oil-by-rail accident in Mosier, Oregon the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) concluded that the tank cars involved — the jacketed CPC-1232 type — “performed as expected.” So an oil train derailing at the relatively slow speed of 25 mph should be “expected” to have breached cars resulting in fiery explosions.

Current regulations allow those tank cars to continue rolling on the track carrying volatile Bakken crude oil and ethanol until 2025 with no modifications.

Yet industry lobbying group the Railway Supply Institute (RSI) has now requested the Federal Railroad Administration to essentially allow these jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars to remain on the tracks for decades beyond 2025.

This was just one of the troubling facts that came to light at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) roundtable on tank car safety on July 13th, and perhaps the one of greatest concern to anyone living in an oil train blast zone like Mosier, Oregon.

Just Re-Stencil It and Call It a DOT 117

One of the biggest risks with Bakken oil train accidents is that often the only way to deal with the fires is to let them burn themselves out. This can result in full tank cars becoming engulfed in flames for hours or days in what is known as a pool fire. This can lead to a “thermal tear” in the tank and the signature mushroom cloud of fire so often seen with these derailments.

The new regulations address this issue by requiring tank cars to have a layer of ceramic insulation covering the entire tank car to prevent the oil from heating up to the point of creating a thermal tear (ceramic shown in pink in the image below.)


Image credit: NTSB

However, the RSI has requested the FRA to allow the existing jacketed CPC-1232 cars, like the ones in the Mosier accident, to not require the ceramic thermal protection.

The industry’s argument is that the current fiberglass insulation on the CPC-1232 is sufficient protection. However, the fact that the fiberglass insulation was not designed to protect the contents of a tank car from fire does not seem to bother the RSI.

At the same time the RSI is arguing against thermal protection for CPC-1232s, the RSI has helpful videos on its website explaining the new safety features for DOT-117 tank cars — including “thermal protection.”

The NTSB’s Robert Sumwalt summed up what this request would mean in one simple statement at the July 13 round table event saying, “the same type of cars as in Mosier can be re-stenciled as DOT-117R with nothing more than a new bottom outlet valve.” [R stands for retrofit.]

So, they are essentially asking to paint over the CPC-1232 label on the tank cars with a DOT-117 while doing nothing more than changing the bottom outlet valve. Which means we should expect many more accidents like Mosier in the future since most of these CPC-1232 cars are only a few years old and they have an expected working life of 30-40 years.

As Robert Sumwalt said in his opening statement explaining why we should expect many more fiery oil train derailments with the existing tank car fleet, “just do the math.”

Industry Arguments Laughable If Not For the Consequences

Would you believe that one of the arguments made at the roundtable in favor of not requiring thermal protection on these cars was that the oil itself acts as a heat sink? Which is true. Until the point where the oil absorbs so much heat from the fire that the tank car explodes.

However, the reason this argument is given credibility is that the regulations only require a tank car to endure sitting in a pool fire for 100 minutes without exploding. Forget the fact that many of the Bakken oil train accidents have involved fires that burned for days.

This 100-minute limit was the same reasoning used to justify the fiberglass insulation on the current jacketed CPC-1232 as offering sufficient protection, as per the industry request. Which led to the following exchange between the NTSB’s Sumwalt and RSI representative John Byrne.

Byrne: “In our own modeling the fiberglass insulation system met the federal requirement for thermal protection.”

Sumwalt: “But in reality in the fiberglass situation, doesn’t the fiberglass all just melt… doesn’t it also melt and all end up pooling down in the bottom in the void between the blanket and the shell?”

Byrne: “Basically yes…but at the same time, that whole system acts as a thermal protection system in that it meets the requirement based on the federal law.”

Sumwalt: “Ok, thanks. So it meets the requirements.”

So, along with the oil itself being offered as adequate thermal protection, we also get fiberglass that melts in a fire being offered as protection for anyone in the blast zone.

So what did the regulators have to say about this absurd argument?

FRA’s Karl Alexy made it clear that “industry” concerns were receiving serious consideration saying, “we’re not taking it lightly, we understand what it means to industry… be certain that we are taking this very seriously.”

Well, we do understand what it means to the industry. Adding ceramic thermal protection would cut into profits. And one thing that was made clear repeatedly during the day’s discussion was that this was all about the money and that safety was only for people worried about “risk.”

As usual when there is a discussion about oil train safety, the oil industry lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute had a seat at the table. API representative Susan Lemieux cut to the heart of the issue with some actual honesty.

“In the industry we don’t see transportation as a risk, it is just a function of business.”

Why try to improve the situation when you don’t see any risk?

The FRA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have informed DeSmog that they will issue a formal response to the industry’s request to allow the fiberglass to qualify as thermal protection in the near future.

The Ground Rules - Profits Over Safety

In the above slide shown of the DOT-117, there is one other important thing to note. The shells on those tank cars are 9/16th of an inch thick. The shells of the jacketed CPC-1232 are 7/16th of an inch thick. This difference has safety implications as the thinner shells rupture more easily.  The RSI points out this fact in a video on its website about the advantages of the thicker shells on the DOT-117 which they say are “less prone to puncture.”

But the more important difference, as we have pointed out repeatedly at DeSmog, is that safer car designs are heavier, which means they can transport less oil per car. That lower capacity again cuts into profits. This point was made by ExxonMobil in a slide they presented to regulators arguing against thicker tank shells.

While Exxon was not at the roundtable, plenty of oil and rail industry representatives were, and they made this point very clear.

Gabe Claypool, President of oil train operators Dakota Plains, explained why it made economic sense to use CPC-1232s over DOT-117s.

“A lot of it’s economics as well…we were just having a conversation around the sizing of the car, the 1232 car type is very much in abundance and it is also a larger car. In the current category of still trying to be profitable, if I can get that extra volume in a larger car that is still regulatorally [sic] compliant, they’re [sic] gonna stick with that.”

Richard Kloster of rail consulting firm Alltranstek was one of the more vocal participants during the roundtable and he repeatedly made points about the economics of retrofitting the CPC-1232 over buying the new DOT-117 saying, “The retrofit is always going to win economically.”

Kloster also made it clear where the industry put its priorities when it came to safety versus profit saying, “There has got to be a balance between safety and the economic viability of moving these products by rail” and that there were a “lot of cases, you know, where economics wins all the time but risk trumps economics in some cases.”

Economics wins all the time.

There was one representative from labor at the roundtable who did not offer a comment until the final closing segment, but he also shared the reality of what was driving the decisionmaking when he discussed the need for safety but stated, “I know it’s about money.”

ExxonMobil Wins Again

So, in the end, ExxonMobil and the oil industry have won again. Watching this roundtable and the many congressional hearings and previous NTSB events in the past few years and seeing the lack of progress on real safety improvements, it almost seems like this all was orchestrated from the start.

In the years leading up to the latest tank car rulemaking, the industry essentially ordered a whole new fleet of CPC-1232 cars which they are currently using. The CPC-1232 cars have the thinner tank shells which makes them more prone to puncture and also more profitable. And they are ok to use, unchanged, until 2025. If the industry request is approved, those cars will just need new bottom outlet valves after 2025.

Regardless, they will always have the thinner tank shells, like Exxon wanted.

At the end of the July 13 event, Robert Sumwalt made an interesting statement. He said, “some of us met yesterday to go over the ground rules.”

The meeting where they went over the ground rules was not open to the public or media. If one were to hazard a guess as to what the first and foremost ground rule set was, it would be a safe bet to posit it was that “economics wins all the time.”

Blog Image Credit: Dawn Faught via NTSB

 

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AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

Repost from the Boston Herald

AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

By Matthew Brown and Michael Kunzelman, December 05, 2015

FILE -In this Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, file photo, clean up continues near Mount Carbon, W.Va., where a train derailed and sent a tanker with crude oil into the Kanawha River. A little-known truth about North American railroads: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

A pair of train derailments in 2012 that killed two people in Maryland and triggered a fiery explosion in Ohio exposed a little-known and unsettling truth about railroads in the U.S. and Canada: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down to be used for hauling hazardous chemicals, thousands of tons of freight or myriad other products on almost 170,000 miles of track.

U.S. transportation officials moved to establish universal standards for when such steel gets replaced, but resistance from major freight railroads killed that bid, according to Associated Press interviews with U.S. and Canadian transportation officials, industry representatives and safety investigators.

Now, following yet another major accident linked to worn-out rails — 27 tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed and exploded in West Virginia earlier this year — regulators are reviving the prospect of new rules for worn rails and vowing they won’t allow the industry to sideline their efforts.

“We try to look at absolutely every place where we can affect and improve safety,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “Track generally is the place that we’re focusing at the moment, and it’s clearly overdue. Rail head wear is one place in particular that we feel like needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”

An official announcement on the agency’s intentions to revisit rail wear is expected by the end of the year.

In the meantime, federal regulators haven’t taken the positive steps that they need to, said Ronald Goldman, an attorney for the families of the two 19-year-old women who died in a 2012 derailment outside Baltimore.

“It’s a lack of will, not a lack of ability, in my opinion,” he added.

Industry supporters argue that the seven major freight railroads in the U.S. and Canada are in the best position to know what is going on with their lines, including when they need to be replaced or have the maximum speeds for trains traveling on them lowered. They also note a long-term decline in accidents that has reduced the frequency of derailments by more than 40 percent since 2000.

All sides agree it’s difficult to pinpoint how many accidents are tied to worn rail. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage.

That’s less than 1 percent of all accidents, yet it masks a broader safety dilemma: Years of massive loads rolling over a rail will exacerbate defects in the steel, such as cracks or fractures. Investigators ultimately list the defect as the cause of a derailment, but it might never have been a problem if the rail had not been worn down.

“Rail defects are internal and rail wear is external, and when external meets internal, that’s when problems may arise,” said John Zuspan of Track Guy Consultants, a Pennsylvania firm that offers track inspections, safety training and other services for railroads.

Two accident causes in particular have the strongest correlation with worn-out rails: “detail fractures” that result from fatigued metal, and “vertical splits” in the head of the rail, where it makes contact with a train’s wheels, according to the FRA.

Those problems caused a combined 1,200 derailments with $300 million in damages, three deaths and 29 people injured in the U.S. between 2000 and the present, according to accident records reviewed by the AP.

Among them was the July 2012 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train hauling ethanol and other products through Columbus, Ohio. Seventeen cars derailed, including three hauling highly flammable ethanol that exploded into flames, triggering an evacuation of surrounding neighborhoods.

A month later, another accident occurred involving a CSX Transportation train hauling coal over a bridge along Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, outside Baltimore. Twenty-one cars derailed when the company’s worn-down rail split beneath the weight of the coal cars. The two college students sitting on the bridge died, crushed by thousands of pounds of spilled coal.

The victims’ families reached a settlement with CSX last year for undisclosed terms. Goldman, the families’ attorney, said he pressed federal officials for a forum that would allow his clients to testify about the issue, but “nothing really happened.”

A month after the CSX derailment, federal regulators asked the Rail Safety Advisory Committee — a panel created by the Railroad Administration to include the industry and others in fashioning safety rules — to craft new standards to reduce the risks of worn-down rail. The committee set up a 116-person working group to tackle the problem, made up of industry representatives, government officials, consultants, researchers and railroad worker unions.

The group included 55 representatives from the major freight railroads and their industry organization, the Association of American Railroads. The FRA had 14 seats at the table and their counterparts from Transport Canada had five.

Following several meetings in 2012 and 2013, the group — which required consensus before recommending action — agreed on voluntary guidance for companies to manage rail wear, but no new regulations.

“There was certainly a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure put on FRA not to adopt regulations for rail wear,” said Richard Inclima, director of safety for the union that represents track inspectors and a member of the working group. “Rail wear limits were on the table. The industry raised a lot of arguments against rail wear limits.”

“The industry doesn’t want to be regulated,” he added. “That’s no secret.”

The railroads’ opposition was confirmed by others involved with the group’s work including from the National Transportation Safety Board, the FRA and Transport Canada.

Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said the railroads were “unaware of any science-based data supporting rail wear limits.”

NTSB investigator Richard Hipskind, who took part in the Ellicott City and Columbus accident investigations and later served on the rail wear working group, said more research would be needed to establish universal standards.

Railroads have their own internal standards for rail wear, and have replaced more than 30,000 miles of rail since 2010, according to reports submitted by the major railroads to the U.S Surface Transportation Board, a semiautonomous agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Standards vary among railroads and are complicated by differences in how much weight a given line bears, whether it’s in a wet or dry climate, and if the line goes through mountains or involves lots of turns. Those variables can make the difference between well-worn rail that’s still safe and routes that poses a heightened safety hazard, according to industry experts and safety officials.

Greenberg said the industry takes an aggressive approach to identifying and removing defective or worn sections of rail.

“Each railroad has its distinct operating environment and operating conditions that would be factored into this,” Greenberg said. He added that the industry was now interested in “renewed dialogue” with the FRA on the topic.

The AP requested details on rail wear standards from each of the seven major freight railroads — BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern. They either refused the request or referred questions to the railroad association, which also declined to release the standards.

Public attention to train derailments increased sharply after July 2013, when an out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. One of the most significant changes to emerge from that and other accidents involving crude and ethanol was a mandate for companies to phase out or upgrade tens of thousands of tank cars that are prone to rupture.

Those are important changes, said James Horbay, a rail safety engineer with Transport Canada. But what causes trains to come off the tracks in the first place needs to be resolved, he said.

“If you crash an airplane, are you going to say, ‘Let’s build an airplane that’s not going to fall apart when it hits the ground?’” he asked. “Whether rail wear is something that should be looked at is a good question to ask. You’re going right to the cause now.”


Matthew Brown reported from Billings, Montana.  Michael Kunzelman reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 
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How Cheap Crude Stalled America’s Booming Oil Trains

Repost from Bloomberg Business

How Cheap Crude Stalled America’s Booming Oil Trains

It was a record year for oil train mishaps—and the year crude-by-rail hit the brakes.

By Matthew Philips , December 2, 2015 – 4:00 AM PST

 

David Wilson/Flickr

It’s been several months since an oil train accident grabbed big headlines—but not because there haven’t been any. A single weekend in November saw two trains derail in Wisconsin. The first spilled about 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River, followed a day later by a spill of about 1,000 gallons of North Dakota Bakken crude.

This year has already been the costliest by far for crude train explosions. Derailments in 2015 have caused $29.7 million in damage, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, a huge increase from $7.5 million in 2014. Most of this year’s price tag can be attributed to two crashes within a three-week span. The Feb. 16 derailment of a CSX train in West Virginia triggered a massive explosion near a cluster of homes along the Kanawha River and led to more than $23 million in damage. A BNSF train that derailed and exploded in Illinois on March 5 caused an additional $5.5 million in damage. Both trains were carrying highly explosive crude from North Dakota.

The lesser-noticed recent accidents haven’t come with explosions or towering fireballs. At least some of the ruptured tank cars were the newer-model CPC-1232, which are supposed to be less likely to split open. The U.S. and Canada earlier this year announced stricter tank car standards, mandating further improvements in the future. Those rules will cost companies—mostly those that ship crude—an estimated $2.5 billion from 2015 to 2034; government estimates suggest the benefits will range from $912 million to $2.9 billion, presumably from fewer accidents.

But even without changing safety standards, there’s reason to suspect that costly train accidents will decline. While 2015 will go down as the worst year for crude train disasters, it’s also shaping up to be the year crude-by-rail hit the brakes. The crash in prices has slowed activity in the oilpatch and reduced the amount of petroleum riding the rails. The number of train carloads carrying petroleum has fallen 30 percent through Nov. 20 since peaking in December 2014, according to the American Association of Railroads. The monthly data on crude-by-rail shipments kept by the U.S. government lags a few months behind, but as of September those shipments had dropped 21 percent from their peak in January 2015.

Rail shipments of petroleum are down 30 percent in 2015.

Rail shipments of petroleum are down 30 percent in 2015.

This marks the first sustained decline in crude-by-rail traffic since it took off in 2009, jumping an astounding 5,000 percent in a little more than five years. Putting oil on trains was never the most efficient way to move it. It’s expensive and slow, not to mention dangerous. But in the places where the shale boom has unlocked the biggest amounts of crude, trains were often the only option.

That’s especially true in North Dakota, home to the Bakken formation, where oil production has risen from about 200,000 barrels a day to more than 1 million. By 2013, 71 percent of Bakken crude was transported by train. North Dakota has almost single-handedly driven the crude-by-rail boom, accounting for 80 percent of all oil train traffic in the U.S. as of earlier this year.

Since the third quarter of 2014, however, two pipeline projects have been completed in North Dakota, increasing the amount of oil that can be piped out of the state by nearly 200,000 barrels a day. There’s also a new refinery that opened earlier this year, reducing the amount of oil that needs to be railed down to the large refineries outside Chicago. Since 2011, North Dakota’s combined pipeline and refining capacity has doubled, from 400,000 barrels a day to 800,000. By the end of 2017 it’s slated to double again, to 1.5 million barrels a day.

Oil traders now have options for how to move oil out of North Dakota. But there’s another reason they’re pulling back on the amount they put on the rails: It’s not as profitable as it used to be. Early on, the shale boom created an enormous glut of crude that ended up stuck in the middle of the country. Getting it to market meant putting it on trucks and trains and barges, which was expensive and slow. So the price of U.S. crude fell compared with international prices. By October 2011 a barrel of U.S. oil pegged to the West Texas Intermediate contract that trades in New York was $27 cheaper than an equivalent barrel priced against the Brent contract trading in London.

That differential led to one of the biggest arbitrage opportunities the oil market has ever seen. Savvy traders could buy cheap oil in the middle of the U.S., find a way to move it, and sell it for higher prices along the coasts, where the market is more exposed to Brent prices. The price to send a barrel of oil by rail from North Dakota down to the U.S. Gulf Coast was about $9 or $10; the rest became profit. Over the past few years, millions of barrels of oil in North Dakota got loaded onto trains bound for the East Coast and the Gulf.

But as the U.S. oil infrastructure reoriented around the shale boom and pipelines began moving domestic oil to the coasts, instead of moving imports into the heartland, the spread between WTI and Brent has narrowed. The crash in global oil prices has closed the gap even further, to the point that a barrel of WTI crude is now just $3 cheaper than a barrel of Brent. That’s not enough to make money if you have to ship it hundreds of miles on a train. Refineries in Texas and Louisiana have switched from railing oil in from North Dakota to importing more crude from West Africa.

As a result, there’s now a glut of tank cars on the market. According to energy research firm Genscape, lease rates have fallen from $2,500 a month to about $500. Big refining companies, which are among the largest crude-by-rail shippers, are shifting their strategy and trying to lock in prices for three and four years rather than just a few months.

David Vernon, a transportation analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, thinks crude-by-rail traffic has peaked. “The heyday is over,” he said. “The high-water mark has likely been set in terms of volumes.”

Canada’s growing oil production is expected to outpace its capacity of new pipelines.

Canada’s growing oil production is expected to outpace its capacity of new pipelines.
Citigroup

Canada, however, could be a different story. Although the country’s oil sands industry is struggling against low prices, there are projects currently under construction that will be finished over the next few years. That extra oil will have to move somehow, and as of now, trains are looking like a strong candidate. Canada’s oil production is forecast to grow faster than pipelines can be built, especially now that the Keystone XL is officially dead. So while the number of trains loaded with crude crisscrossing the U.S. may diminish in the next few years, rail may remain a viable option in Canada.

 

 

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