Category Archives: Bomb Trains

Trump admin’s stunning explanation for easing up on oil trains: Safety no excuse for “inhibiting market growth”

Safety Can’t Be a ‘Pretext’ for Regulating Unsafe Oil Trains, Says Trump Admin

Desmog, by Justin Mikulka, May 20, 2020
Lac-Megantic oil train explosion
Train burning in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Credit: Transportation Safety Board of Canada, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The federal agency overseeing the safe transport of hazardous materials released a stunning explanation of its May 11 decision striking down a Washington state effort to regulate trains carrying volatile oil within its borders. A state cannot use “safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth,” wrote Paul J. Roberti, the chief counsel for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

The statement appeared in the Trump administration’s justification for overruling Washington’s oil train regulation, which was challenged by crude-producing North Dakota and oil industry lobbying groups. The Washington rule seeks to limit oil vapor pressure unloaded from trains to less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi) in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that train derailments lead to the now-familiar fireballs and explosions accompanying trains transporting volatile oil.

Roberti wrote: “Proponents of the law insist Washington State has a legitimate public interest to protect its citizens from oil train fires and explosions, but in the context of the transportation of crude oil by rail, a State cannot use safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth or instituting a de facto ban on crude oil by rail within its borders.”

With this statement, PHMSA is codifying what has been clear for some time at the regulatory agencies responsible for overseeing the transportation of hazardous materials by rail: that is, profits take priority over safety.

Rail Industry ‘Pre-emption’ and Safety Under Trump

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), PHMSA‘s parent agency, invoked the same legal argument, known as “pre-emption,” to overrule state efforts to require at minimum two-person crews for operating freight trains. As part of the explanation for that decision, the DOT‘s Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was adopting a policy of deregulation.

DOT’s approach to achieving safety improvements begins with a focus on removing unnecessary barriers and issuing voluntary guidance, rather than regulations that could stifle innovation,” wrote the agency.

A regulatory agency announcing a broad deregulatory agenda was shocking. However, this latest move openly declares that, while Washington state may have an interest in protecting its citizens from “oil train fires and explosions,” that concern should not get in the way of the oil industry’s ability to ship more of its product by rail through the state, apparently even if that increases the risk of oil train fires and explosions to Washington residents. This logic reaches a new level of prioritizing profits over people as regulatory practice.


Historically, or at least, theoretically, government has based regulations on cost-benefit analyses, weighing the costs of complying for the regulated entities against the benefits, such as lives saved or accidents prevented, as a result of the new rules. Here, the DOT‘s new regulatory approach appears to weigh primarily the benefits for the rail and oil industries while downplaying the potential cost in human lives.

However, these industries did argue about costs to get to this point. As DeSmog has repeatedly documented, lowering the vapor pressure of oil below 9 psi is possible through a process called stabilization, which makes oil less volatile and less likely to ignite. Conditioning the oil in this way before loading on trains would require the oil industry to invest in stabilization equipment, which the industry has argued is not economically feasible.

In 2014, Myron Goforth, the president of Dew Point Control LLC, a manufacturer of stabilization equipment, put the situation in simple terms. “It’s very easy to stabilize the crude — it just takes money,” Goforth told Reuters. “The producer doesn’t want to pay for it if he can ship it without doing it.”

DOT‘s May 11 decision notes that “compliance with the [Washington] law can only be accomplished by (1) pretreating the crude oil prior to loading the tank car.” Exactly: Making the oil safe to ship on long, heavy trains through small towns and large cities requires stabilizing, or conditioning, before loading it into tank cars (just as the industry does before loading oil in pipelines or on ocean-going tankers, at least in Texas). DOT makes no argument about how companies could comply with the Washington law, outside of trying to avoid passing through the state entirely or using a different transportation mode other than trains.

A particularly telling clue behind the DOT‘s conclusion that the Washington law should be pre-empted is found in the commenters whose opinions the agency is highlighting: “In light of the infrastructure, equipment, and other logistical issues, the commenters have concluded that pretreating is economically infeasible or unrealistic.”

In this case, the “commenters” the DOT is referencing are members of the oil industry and its lobbyists, including the refinery company Hess Corporation, Marathon Petroleum, the American Petroleum Institute (API), American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

At an oil-by-rail conference in 2016, an API official described the industry’s attitude about the prospect of requiring oil stabilization for rail transport: “We in the oil and gas industry see this as a very dangerous conversation.”


In December 2017, Trump’s Federal Railroad Administration repealed an Obama-era rule requiring modern braking systems on oil trains despite overwhelming evidence that these systems improve rail safety. Sarah Feinberg, former head of the Federal Railroad Administration, offered important context about rail industry opposition to that rule.

The science is there, the data is there,” Feinberg said of the efforts to require updated rail braking systems on oil trains. “Their argument is, despite that data, [they] don’t want to spend the money on it.”

That seems to be the rule for overseeing rail safety under the Trump administration. If a rule costs industry money to improve safety and protect the public from oil train fires and explosions, the industry will push back against its regulators, who appear to be pushovers, especially but not exclusively under Trump.

The alternative of prohibiting oil transportation by rail, because it is apparently too dangerous and too costly to do safely, is never even considered.

Ignoring the Science

The latest decision on the Washington state case continues a trend under Trump to overlook robust science when regulating oil by rail. However, you might not know it from the comments of this decision’s supporters.

PHMSA used a single, flawed study from Sandia National Laboratories to support its conclusion that limiting the vapor pressure of oil moved by rail is unnecessary — while the agency ignored all the other established research on vapor pressure, volatility, and ignitability of crude oil.

The North Dakota Congressional delegation opened its statement praising the May 11 decision with lip service to science: “We thank the administration for doing the right thing by putting sound, scientific evidence above partisan politics.”

In the same vein, Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, told the Associated Press, “There is nothing unusual about the volatility of Bakken crude oil,” a claim the North Dakota attorney general has also made to argue against the Washington vapor pressure law.

And yet these statements don’t stand up to scrutiny. In my book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk, I present the evidence that Bakken crude oil’s volatility is higher than other regions and that this factor makes a difference. This crude oil is much more volatile than traditional crude oil from Louisiana or Texas, and that volatility, along with other factors, makes it more likely to ignite in oil train derailments.

WATCH: Justin Mikulka, Sept 2015: The Science of Bomb Trains

As I noted at the time of its publishing, the Sandia Labs study is deeply flawed and does not study the actual issue of oil igniting during train derailments.

As for whether Bakken oil’s volatility is “unusual,” a Wall Street Journal analysis found in 2014 that “Crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere.” These combustible gases are what give the Bakken oil much higher vapor pressure levels than most other crude oils from the U.S.

The combustible gases in the oil are natural gas liquids like butane and propane, which is why the oil is so volatile.

At the same time that the oil industry tries to say Bakken oil isn’t more volatile than other oils, it argues that Bakken oil’s value lies in these extra natural gas liquids. Stabilizing the oil by removing these gases from the oil not only would cost the industry money but the resulting oil would be worth less to the industry.

The DOT notes as much in its recent decision: “These higher vapor pressure hazardous materials, such as butane, ethane, and other natural gases, are deemed essential and valuable components of Bakken crude.”

The oil industry has no argument to make on a scientific basis here, only an economic one. Reducing the vapor pressure of oil by removing gases like butane and ethane makes it less volatile and less likely to ignite. That is established by research. But the industry has repeatedly argued that removing these flammable gases from the oil would make it less valuable, which is one of its justifications for not stabilizing the oil.

A Second Bakken Bomb Train Boom Could Be on the Way

The only things that have kept the estimated 25 million North Americans living along railroad blast zones safer from dangerous oil trains is the success of activists who have blocked new oil-by-rail projects and oil industry economics. Because transporting oil by rail is more expensive than by pipeline or ocean-going tankers, the industry moves much less oil on trains when oil prices are low.


Oil train protesters in Albany, New York, in May 2016. Credit: Justin Mikulka

With current oil prices at record lows in the U.S. and Canada, it doesn’t make economic sense to move oil by rail, which is good news for the millions of people living along the rails.

However, a current legal battle over the Dakota Access pipeline could make moving Bakken oil by rail a major mode of transportation, perhaps regardless of oil price.

A judge recently set a hearing to review the permitting process for the controversial pipeline, currently moving 500,000 barrels of crude per day. Depending on the outcome, that hearing could result in the judge vacating the pipeline’s permits, shutting it down and diverting all of that Bakken oil back onto the rails in a big way, at levels that would surpass the records of 2014. The Obama administration passed oil train safety regulations in 2015 in response to the fiery accidents and oil spills that coincided with the boom in oil train traffic.

The Trump administration has steadily worked to roll back the modest progress of those safety rules, with the last one, on vapor pressure for oil by rail, withdrawn from the rulemaking process the very same day the DOT pre-empted Washington’s vapor pressure rule.

Now, an essentially unregulated oil-by-rail industry poses a real risk to public safety and the environment. With the Trump administration shooting down Washinton’s rule and repealing previous safety regulations, the risks of moving volatile oil by rail are essentially the same as in 2013. That was the same year a train hauling Bakken oil exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people.

Today, Bakken oil is just as volatile — and dangerous. The trains pulling upwards of a hundred cars of oil have the same outdated braking systems. Regulators have no requirements overseeing train track integrity or wear (the two latest oil train derailments and fires in Canada were likely because of track failures). There are no regulations on train length. And while rail companies have phased in a newer class of tank cars, those cars have ruptured in every major derailment involving oil and ethanol trains.

The accident in Lac-Mégantic happened almost seven years ago. An early Wall Street Journal article after the accident quoted an oil industry executive who said, “Crude oil doesn’t explode like that.”

Which is true in most cases. But Bakken crude does explode like that because it is full of gases like butane, is highly volatile, and has much higher vapor pressure than most other crude oils.

While that doesn’t have to be true, the Trump administration is taking steps to make sure it is.

Main image: Train burning in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Credit: Transportation Safety Board of CanadaCC BYNCND 2.0

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.”

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.”

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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