Category Archives: Bomb Trains

Trump Order to Allow LNG by Rail Would Expand ‘Bomb Train’ Risks

Repost from DeSmog

Deadly explosion in Durham, North Carolina on same day as Trump’s order

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, April 17, 2019 – 15:13

Fiery detonation of a propane train in Utah

On April 10, first responders in Durham, North Carolina, responded to a suspected natural gas leak. While they were evacuating people from the area, the gas exploded, killing one person and injuring at least 25.

The same day Durham was dealing with the aftermath of a deadly natural gas explosion, President Donald Trump was issuing an executive order directing federal regulators to create new rules allowing rail companies to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) by train in the next 13 months, or less.

The gas and rail industries have lobbied for years to allow LNG by rail, and have found a willing partner in the Trump administration. Last week’s executive order was cheered by lobbyists for both natural gas and rail. One lobbyist, Charlie Riedl of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, immediately spoke about the purported safety of moving natural gas in any form.

It’s really hard to even get it to ignite to begin with in a gaseous format, let alone in a liquid format,” Riedl told Bloomberg.

Durham, however, might disagree.

Are Federal Regulators Testing the Safety?

As I wrote in January 2017, Robert Fronczak, a top official at the Association of American Railroads (AAR), a railroad industry lobbying group, gave the industry position on LNG by rail in a late 2016 presentation titled, “Getting LNG Onto the Rails.”

At the Energy by Rail conference, Fronczak noted that the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was researching the risks of transporting LNG by rail, but that according to Fronczak, “That could take several years to do and we don’t think it’s necessary to wait all that long … We think they should allow it immediately.”

Fronczak’s presentation also included a slide titled, “What DOT Should Do?” (DOT refers to the Department of Transportation.) His presentation recommended transporting LNG in a class of refrigerated tank cars called DOT-113, which is used to move the hydrocarbon ethylene.

From Getting LNG Onto the Rails presentation October 27, 2016. Credit: Robert Fronczak, AAR

In 2017, DeSmog asked the Federal Railroad Administration about the planned testing around LNG by rail, but the response provided few details: “The testing is still ongoing … there’s no prediction yet on a completion date.”

Last week DeSmog inquired again about the status of this research and received a similar response: “Additional tests are planned this year and next but full details are not yet available.”

These answers are typical of the communication from the FRA these days.

In a follow-up email I asked one question, “Simply put, how can we assure people that this is safe when the research hasn’t been done?”

The FRA‘s emailed response did not answer the question directly but, just as in Fronczak’s presentation, referenced the refrigerated tank cars used to transport ethylene: ”DOT-113 cryogenic tank cars have been in service for approximately 50 years transporting ethylene, refrigerated liquid (ethylene and methane have the same cryogenic and flammable characteristics) with a good safety record.” (Natural gas is primarily methane.)

The president has mandated that regulations allowing LNG by rail be in place in 13 months. However, the FRA currently isn’t providing any public information on actions the agency is taking to ensure this can be done safely. And while it is true that the DOT-113 tank cars have been moving hazardous materials safely for years, the number of these tanks cars in service is quite low compared to crude oil and ethanol. In 2015 there were under 13,000 car loads of product moved using DOT-113 tank cars.

To put that in perspective, according to a 2014 AAR documentU.S. railroads were transporting 9,500 carloads of crude oil in 2008 but by 2013, that number skyrocketed to 407,761 carloads. Crude oil trains weren’t experiencing major derailments before rail companies shifted to transporting oil in long unit trains of 100 cars or more at high volumes, which was the case in 2013, the year of the deadly Lac-Mégantic crude oil derailment.

The problems with moving oil by rail showed up once large amounts of crude oil began moving in these long trains dedicated to just moving crude oil (unit trains). As I’ve noted on DeSmog, the oil-by-rail boom also coincided with the use of heavier rail cars that could hold up to 286,000 pounds when fully loaded. The DOT-113 tank cars likely to carry LNG can hold the same weight.

In pushing for LNG by rail, Fronczak was just doing his job, which is to promote rail industry interests, that is, profits. That is what lobbyists are paid to do.

When contacted for comment, the AAR pointed to its recent press release on Trump’s executive order and the AAR‘s petition to allow LNG by rail. The rail lobbying group did not address questions about the AAR‘s current position on unit trains and train length regulations for LNG.

However, unlike the AAR, the FRA‘s job is to regulate the rail industry and protect the public from unnecessary risks.

Misleading Media Headlines

A headline on a story from the oil and gas trade site Oilprice.com, which also appeared on Yahoo Finance, dismisses concerns about the dangers of LNG by rail: “Environmentalists’ “Bomb Train” Concerns Are Overblown.” (“Bomb train” is the nickname rail operators gave oil trains after they began exploding with giant fireballs after derailing.)

While the headline is dismissive, the story itself includes information contradicting the headline and spelling out the very real safety concerns regarding LNG by rail. It mentions “plenty of cautionary tales from previous experiments in sending oil and gas by rail, from spills, explosions, and accidents” to the oil train disaster that killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.

Despite its headline and after citing industry views on the relative safety of LNG, the story goes on to say, “While that sounds like any cause for alarm and cries of ‘bomb trains’ is overblown, however, there is still a wide margin for risk if a tank of LNGwere ruptured or caused in any other way to come into contact with air.”

Utah’s Propane Bomb Train Previews LNG by Rail

An important detail in this conversation about moving LNG by rail is that the LNG likely would travel in much more robust, safer tank cars, the DOT-113 line, than even the new cars used to move ethanol and oil. Even though rail companies now are transporting oil in newer tank cars, those cars have failed repeatedly during derailments, resulting in large oil spills.

Liquefied propane currently travels in DOT-112 tank cars, which are also more robust than the ones used for oil and ethanol. At the end of March, a train moving propane in Utah derailed and the damage led to some propane leaking. However, the derailment was nothing like the typical oil train derailment, with multiple ruptured cars and major product releases.

Why aren’t oil and ethanol moved in the same tank cars as propane? This idea was floated at one point as the Department of Transportation was preparing its 2015 oil-by-rail regulations, but industry lobbyists quickly vetoed it. As a result, the tank cars that oil and ethanol travel in remain one of the many risk factors surrounding these products’ transport.

The accident in Utah showed that the tank cars used to move propane do a better job at preventing product leases than the ones used to move crude oil. However, it also highlights the risks of moving these flammable materials by rail.

While the train in Utah didn’t explode on its own after derailing, the damage to the rail cars carrying the propane and its explosion risks led responders to decide the best way to deal with the derailed cars was to detonate them in place.


Video of propane tank car detonation in Juab County, Utah. Credit: Juab County Sheriff’s Office

This was possible because it was in rural Utah, more than 70 miles from Salt Lake City and six miles outside a town of less than 700. However, the natural gas and rail industries’ top priority for introducing LNG by rail is to move LNG to the Northeast, which is experiencing pipeline bottlenecks.

That means trains carrying LNG would go by and through major cities.

Can you safely detonate rail cars full of flammable gas in a major population center?

As the U.S. grapples with a potential boom in moving fracked natural gas-turned-LNG across this country using long, heavy unit trains, it seems like a question the FRA should be examining. As I’ve documented over the years, we know what happened when federal regulators failed to do this before the crude-by-rail boom: We discovered “bomb trains.”

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    Trump executive order clears way to ship liquified natural gas in bomb trains

    Repost from OilPrice.com
    [Editor: This article appears in OilPrice.com with a completely misleading title.  The report is highly informative about the Trump administration’s stripping of regulatory oversight of the energy industry.  This news is alarming and should be taken seriously by environmentalists.  SIGNIFICANT QUOTE: “…there is still a wide margin for risk if a tank of LNG were ruptured or caused in any other way to come into contact with air. When exposed to air, the liquefied natural gas will rapidly convert back into an ultra-flammable gas and begin to evaporate.”  See also: Google coverage of Trump’s executive order.  – R.S.]

    [MISLEADING TITLE…] Environmentalists’ “Bomb Train” Concerns Are Overblown
    By Haley Zaremba – Apr 13, 2019, 12:00 PM CDT

    Smoke

    This week president Donald Trump signed two executive orders aimed at speeding up the development and functionality of oil and gas projects in the United States. The orders will ease the process of building new oil and gas pipelines and put up extra hurdles for state agencies that want to intervene, a move immediately decried by many state officials and environmentalists.

    The executive orders are intended to curtail officials’ power to limit the oil and gas sector at the state level by changing federal agencies’ issued instructions, or “guidance”. One executive order further includes a directive to curb shareholder ballot initiatives concerning environmental and social policies, while the second order, focused on border-crossing energy projects, takes the power to approve or deny pipelines and other infrastructure crossing over the country’s borders away from the Secretary of State and gives the responsibility wholly to the president.

    Furthermore, President Trump’s executive action also specifically directs the Department of Transportation to change its rules concerning the transport of natural gas, requiring the agency to permit the shipment of liquefied natural gas by rail and by tanker truck. This detail of Wednesday’s executive orders has already proven to be extremely divisive. The directive would open up new markets with major demand for U.S. natural gas but moving the potentially explosive substance by rail could cause potentially catastrophic accidents if one of these train cars were to derail.

    Despite the risks, the move is counted as a major victory for railroads and the natural gas sector, which have been lobbying for years for just this sort of initiative. Proponents of the order argue that it’s necessary to deliver natural gas to the needy Northeast, where there are not sufficient pipelines to meet demand. They also argue that delivering more natural gas to the U.S. Northeast via road and rail would make it possible to use LNG to power ships and trains. One such advocate, head of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas trade group Charlie Riedl, told Bloomberg that “there are all sorts of new opportunities where you can use rail much more efficiently.”

    The initiative has other potential benefits as well, such as offsetting the steep decline of coal shipments by rail, but for many, the drawbacks far outweigh all these silver linings. You don’t need to look too far to find plenty of cautionary tales from previous experiments in sending oil and gas by rail, from spills, explosions, and accidents to a runaway oil train in Quebec that killed nearly 50 people when it derailed in a small town in 2013.

    The natural gas that would be shipped in train cars and tanker trucks will be chilled to 260 degrees Fahrenheit below zero (-167 Celsius) and is extremely space efficient, taking up just 1/600th of its volume in a gaseous state. This form of liquefied natural gas is already being shipped all around the world all the time, including within the U.S., where it is driven in trucks to storage facilities.

    In this liquefied, super-chilled state, natural gas is not flammable on its own and cannot be ignited and is actually considered much safer to ship than crude oil. While that sounds like any cause for alarm and cries of “bomb trains” is overblown, however, there is still a wide margin for risk if a tank of LNG were ruptured or caused in any other way to come into contact with air. When exposed to air, the liquefied natural gas will rapidly convert back into an ultra-flammable gas and begin to evaporate.

    One staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, Emily Jeffers, told Bloomberg that Trump’s plan to ship natural gas by rail is a “disaster waiting to happen,” going on to say that under the guidelines of the executive order “you’re transporting an extraordinarily flammable and dangerous substance through highly populated areas with basically no environmental protection.”

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      California Attorney General Calls on Trump to Close Loophole that Exposes Communities to “Bomb Trains”

      Press Release from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
      [Editor:  See also KQED California Report, “AG Becerra Wants Trump Administration to Make Crude-Carrying ‘Bomb Trains’ Safer”  Also, see the NRDC blog on this story.   And … sadly … see a similar story from December, 2015.  – RS]

      Attorney General Becerra Calls on Trump to Close Loophole that Exposes Vulnerable California Communities to “Bomb Trains”

      Thursday, May 25, 2017
      Contact: (415) 703-5837, agpressoffice@doj.ca.gov
      • Without Action, California Could Be Exposed To Freight Trains Carrying Highly Flammable, Highly Explosive Crude Oil
      • San Bernardino-Riverside And San Luis Obispo Among Regions Bearing Greatest Potential Risks

      SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is urging the Trump Administration to immediately close a loophole to prevent highly flammable, highly explosive crude oil from being shipped by freight rail via so-called “bomb trains” through communities in California, including the highly populated San Bernardino-Riverside and San Luis Obispo regions. High hazard areas for derailments would exist along every freight rail route in California. Many of these areas are also adjacent to California’s most sensitive ecological areas.

      “Millions of Californians live, work, and attend school within the vicinity of railroad train tracks,” said Attorney General Becerra. “A derailment or explosion in California could put countless lives at risk and cause major damage to our land and waterways. This risk is simply unacceptable. I urge the Trump Administration to act immediately.”

      So-called “bomb trains” are responsible for several catastrophic rail accidents in recent years, including the 2013 explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

      In comments submitted to federal regulators, Attorney General Becerra called for immediate action that would require all crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a key driver of the oil’s explosiveness and flammability. Attorney General Becerra joined attorneys general from Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New York and Washington in calling for this requirement.

      The comments were filed in response to an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

      Earlier this month, as part of his efforts to protect vulnerable California communities, Attorney General Becerra filed a lawsuit in federal court that seeks to protect state residents from dangerous pollution that results from coal mining. Coal mined on public lands is transported by train through California and exported from ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles, Richmond and Stockton — areas next to several vulnerable communities. The transport of coal in open-top rail cars, as well as its storage and handling at export terminals, emits dangerous pollution. These emissions can result in a wide variety of serious health problems, including asthma, bronchitis, cardio-vascular diseases and cancer.

      # # #

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        LA TIMES: Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

        Repost from the Los Angeles Times
        [Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading!  – RS]

        Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

        By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM

        latimes_abcarianThere were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.

        A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.

        “My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”

        After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.

        Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?

        Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?

        (Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)

        Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.

        The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.

        Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?

        Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.

        Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.

        “We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”

        “That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.

        ::

        These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.

        As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”

        The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.

        “For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”

        On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.

        Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.

        But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.

        “I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.

        They are well deserved.

        ::

        Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.

        The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.

        Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.

        They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.

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