More Fiery Oil Train, Pipeline Accidents Unless Government Acts: Report
September 22, 2014
If the U.S. doesn’t quickly address the safe transportation of oil and gas, Americans could pay the price with more fiery train and pipeline accidents, according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office.
“Without timely action to address safety risks posed by increased transport of oil and gas by pipeline and rail, additional accidents that could have been prevented or mitigated may endanger the public and call into question the readiness of transportation networks in the new oil and gas environment,” found the report.
The GAO report focused on the safety of moving crude oil by train and the growing network of “gathering lines,” largely unregulated natural gas pipelines. Both have been subjects of recent investigations by NBC News. The GAO determined that the Department of Transportation had “not kept pace with the changing oil and gas transportation environment.”
Oil and gas production in the U.S. increased more than fivefold between 2007 and 2012, a boom brought on by technological advances in drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Vast volumes of oil and gas production soon outstripped the pipeline infrastructure in place to move them.
Crude producers began to load their oil on trains. More than 400,000 carloads of crude ran over North American rails in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008. But a series of explosive wrecks have raised concern about the safety of oil trains — the worst, a 2013 derailment outside a small Quebec town, killed nearly 50 people.
The DOT has since issued proposed rules to improve the train cars that carry oil. In its report, the GAO applauded the move, but emphasized safety improvements must go beyond the cars, including testing the makeup of the oil, which the DOT has said is particularly flammable.
The GAO also warned better oversight was needed over the growing network of “gathering pipelines” that move natural gas from the well. In August, an investigation by NBC News found that 250,000 miles of these lines are in rural areas and subject to little or no federal or state safety oversight, despite sometimes running beside homes.
Repost from Seattle PI.com [Editor: This is a challenging think-piece for opponents of crude by rail. Personally, I believe that sit-ins, songs and resolutions have a place in a multi-faceted approach to organizing against big oil and rail. But Connelly has a point – we need to think hard and long on serious strategies for success. – RS]
Publicity-stunt sit-ins, council resolutions won’t stop oil trains
Posted on August 1, 2014 | By Joel Connelly
In watching the Seattle City Council’s ritual of passing whereas-heavy, symbolic resolutions over the years, an observer can come way believing the council’s prime purpose in life is to send demonstrators home happy.
The response to oil trains, arriving in every greater numbers, is the latest example of Seattle’s insular, echo chamber politics. Its product is meaningless symbolism.
Councilman Mike O’Brien gins up an oil train resolution, much as he did on Occupy Seattle. Council member Kshama Sawant shows up at the BNSF tracks for her demonstration of the day. A Sawant mini-me running for the Legislature gets arrested. The news is telephoned to a Stranger reporter who is supporting the candidate.
Will any of this impact the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad? Will it influence the business of giant refiners like BP and Tesoro, increasingly dependent on rail shipments of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota?
Of course not. The carbon economy has the Interstate Commerce Act on its side. The U.S. Department of Transportation seems intent on accommodating shippers in its rule-making. Refineries support 2,000-plus jobs in northern Puget Sound.
For instance, the USDOT’s proposed safety rules tout a “two year” required phase out of old, explosion-prone tanker cars. When you read the fine print, phase out period begins in September 2015.
Here is how critics can effectively put the heat on, and deal their way into the safety debate. The recent and ongoing coal port/coal train battle is a model for dealing with obtuse agencies and potentially more lethal cargoes:
– Mass support, not just driblets: Somewhere in Seattle, somebody (usually Kshama Sawant) is demonstrating every day. Protests pant after a moment on the evening TV news. Often, they leave as much impression as footprints in the snow.
By contrast, a well-planned event can signal (to politicians) that a movement has staying power. It registered when 395 people packed a Bellingham City Club meeting for a debate on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. Sponsors had appears to have it greased. A bigger impression was made 2,500 people who showed up for a federal-state “scoping” hearing in Seattle.
– An agenda, not 1960′s slogans: Coalport/coal train port critics asked for an independent, comprehensive look at impacts trains will have across Washington. They wanted environmental studies to look at climate consequences of providing economical fuel to keep aging Chinese power plants in operation.
It is absurd, for instance, for the Army Corps of Engineers to limit “transportation” to the seven-mile spur line from Custer to Cherry Point in Whatcom County. Big coal, railroads and construction unions were flummoxed by a reasonable demand.
– A real coalition, not just a paper list: Seattle “coalitions” are populated by the usual suspects. A real movement gets a cross-section of recruits. Montana ranchers are not keen to see their land torn up. Firefighters worry that long trains will block waterfront access, and (with oil) that they’ll be left holding the bag when a 1960′s-vintage tanker car blows up.
The proposed Pebble Mine, near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, shows REAL reach-out. Opposition began with greens, quickly embraced Alaska’s commercial and sport fisheries, gained backing from the powerful Bristol Bay Native Corp., expanded to Washington fishermen, and found roles for restaurant chefs and major jewelry companies.
– Political work horses, not show horses: Behind all the posturing on coal ports, state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, put together letters to the feds and state laying out — precisely — potential impacts that must be known. The letters helped shape the charge given by Gov. Jay Inslee to the Department of Ecology.
With oil trains, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., recently cornered — and treed — USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx at a recent hearing. She delivered a message that MUST be driven home. Faux safety measures won’t cut it. Cantwell and Carlyle don’t go for whereas clauses.
– Fact and evidence, not just hyperbole: Exaggeration is a basic activist weapon, broadly deployed. It gets people riled, but has limited staying power. What’s needed are activist-experts who learn the stuff, and steep themselves in places to be impacted.
A lighter touch should be put on heavy handed manipulation of the media. Certain web sites and outlets can be counted on to spout the party line. Others aren’t content to simply be fed.
The carbon economy is coming our way — big time — with proposed coal export terminals, a big terminal to receive oil trains (in Vancouver, Wash.), coal and oil trains taking over the rails, plus pipeline terminals and oil export ports in British Columbia.
It’s not going to be turned back by sit-ins or Council resolutions in a city with less than 10 percent of Washington’s population.
Seattle politics is sandlot. What we’re facing, and trying to influence, is a big-league challenge.
Stopping deadly oil train fires: New rules planned
The Associated Press, Jul. 23, 2014
WASHINGTON — Responding to a series of fiery train crashes, the government proposed rules Wednesday that would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars that carry increasing quantities of crude oil and other highly flammable liquids through America’s towns and cities.
But many details were put off until later as regulators struggle to balance safety against the economic benefits of a fracking boom that has sharply increased U.S. oil production. Among the issues: What type of tank cars will replace those being phased out, how fast will they be allowed to travel and what kind of braking systems will they need?
Accident investigators have complained for decades that older tank cars, known as DOT-111s, are too easily punctured or ruptured, spilling their contents when derailed. Since 2008, there have been 10 significant derailments in the U.S. and Canada in which crude oil has spilled from ruptured tank cars, often igniting and resulting in huge fireballs. The worst was a runaway oil train that exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic a year ago, killing 47 people.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he said he expects his department to complete final regulations before the end of the year. First, the public and affected industries will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal.
“We are at the dawn of a promising time for energy production in this country,” Foxx said. “This is a positive development for our economy and for energy independence, but the responsibilities attached to this production are very serious.”
In a report released along with the rules, the Department of Transportation concluded that oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, where fracking methods have created an oil boom, is more volatile than is typical for light, sweet crudes.
The oil industry immediately challenged that conclusion. “The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks,” said American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard. “DOT needs to get this right and make sure that its regulations are grounded in facts and sound science, not speculation.”
Rail shipments of crude have skyrocketed from a few thousand carloads a decade ago to 434,000 carloads last year. The Bakken now produces over 1 million barrels per day, and production is increasing.
The phase-in period for replacing or retrofitting older tank cars that transport the most volatile types of liquids is shorter than the Canadian government’s three-year phased plan. Congress, fearing another Lac-Megantic, has been pressuring regulators to put new safety rules in place as quickly as possible.
The proposal also includes ethanol, which is transported in the same kind of tank cars. From 2006 to 2012, there were seven train derailments in which tank cars carrying ethanol ruptured. Several crashes caused spectacular fires that emergency responders were powerless to put out.
The proposed regulations apply only to trains of 20 or more cars. Crude oil trains from the Bakken are typically 100 cars or more.
The department is weighing three options for replacements. One would be to make cars known as “1232s” the new standard for transporting hazardous liquids. Those cars are a stronger design voluntarily agreed to by the railroad, oil and ethanol industries in 2011. But those cars, which have been in use for several years, have also ruptured in several accidents.
The oil and ethanol industries have been urging White House and transportation officials to retain the 1232 design for new cars. The industries have billions of dollars invested in tens of thousands of tank cars that officials say were purchased with the expectation they would last for decades.
Another option is a design proposed by Association of American Railroads that has a thicker shell, an outer layer to protect from heat exposure, a “jacket” on top of that, and a better venting valve, among other changes. A third design proposed by the department is nearly identical to the one proposed by railroads, but it also has stronger fittings on the top of the car to prevent spillage during a rollover accident at a speed of 9 mph.
Regulators also are weighing whether to limit crude and ethanol trains to a maximum of 40 mph throughout the country, or just in “high-threat” urban areas or areas with populations greater than 100,000 people. A high-threat urban area is usually one or more cities surrounded by a 10-mile buffer zone.
Railroads had already voluntarily agreed to reduce oil train speeds to 40 mph in urban areas beginning July 1. Tank cars — including the newer ones built to a tougher safety standard — have ruptured in several accidents at speeds below 30 mph. Regulators said they’re considering lowering the speed limit to 30 mph for trains that aren’t equipped with advanced braking systems.
The freight railroad industry had met privately with department and White House officials to lobby for keeping the speed limit at 40 mph in urban areas rather than lowering it. Railroad officials say a 30 mph limit would tie up traffic across the country because other freight wouldn’t be able to get past slower oil and ethanol trains.
The department said it is considering three types of braking systems for oil and ethanol trains, but a final decision will depend on what type of tank car design is eventually adopted.
Whatever option regulators settle on, the proposal calls for newly manufactured cars to meet that standard beginning Oct. 1, 2015.
The proposal continues a requirement that railroads transporting at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil notify emergency response commissions ahead of time in states they pass through. Communities from upstate New York to the coast of Washington have complained they’re in the dark about when trains pass through and how much oil and ethanol they’re transporting.