Category Archives: Rail industry

Deregulating Rail Transportation of Liquefied Natural Gas

The Regulatory Review, by Mark Nakahara, Mar 24, 2020

Proposed rule aims to make it easier to ship liquified natural gas by rail.

A new regulation from the Trump Administration may soon make it easier for U.S. companies to ship large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG), an increasingly valuable product. But the new regulation also carries great risks.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently released a proposed rule that would allow for railroads to transport LNG in bulk and without obtaining special permits. Critics, however, worry that PHMSA is acting too quickly and disregarding certain safety concerns.

LNG is a cryogenic liquid—a substance that must be refrigerated below -90°C (-130°F) to maintain its liquid state. Since liquids are more compact than gases, large volumes of substances like LNG can be transported by freight trains.

PHMSA states that LNG is “odorless, colorless, non-corrosive, and non-toxic,” but safety concerns remain. LNG has traditionally been shipped by road or sea, and current regulations only allow the bulk transportation of LNG by rail after a shipper has obtained special approval from PHMSA or the Federal Railroad Administration. Observing that LNG is similar in nature to other substances that may be shipped by rail, the Association of American Railroads petitioned PHMSA to allow LNG to be shipped by rail in standard tank cars.

The issue of LNG transportation reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. In an executive order, President Trump noted that the current LNG regulations were drafted almost 40 years ago when the industry was less developed. As part of an effort to upgrade American energy infrastructure, the President specifically requested that the U.S. Department of Transportation amend the regulations to “treat LNG the same as other cryogenic liquids and permit LNG to be transported in approved rail tank cars.”

Just over six months after the executive order, PHMSA issued its proposed rule.

The proposed rule would permit the shipping of LNG in DOT-113 tank cars, which routinely transport other cryogenic liquids such as liquid hydrogen, nitrogen, and ethylene. Since LNG has similar properties to these liquids, PHMSA anticipates that the cars would be suitable for this task. PHMSA says that it also considered creating specifications for a new type of tank car that would be able to transport LNG over a longer timeframe, but it concluded that this process would only delay the rulemaking process.

The proposed rule also raises and seeks public comment on various operational issues designed to reduce safety risks should a rail accident occur. Since LNG is a hazardous material shipped at high pressure, a derailment or collision involving a tank car can have severe effects.

PHMSA is considering several methods for reducing risk. Following a safety recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board, PHMSA has noted that cars containing LNG could be arranged a safe distance from the train crew in the locomotive. It also has suggested that speed restrictions could be imposed on trains carrying LNG, or that additional routing requirements be fulfilled when scheduling rail shipments of LNG.

Due to a lack of data on LNG rail shipments, PHMSA has not yet proposed any concrete, definitive rule changes addressing these operational issues. PHMSA anticipates that freight trains will only carry a few LNG cars at a time and the agency finds it “uncertain” whether the industry would grow to the point where entire trains would be devoted to LNG.

In a letter to PHMSA, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) expressed concern that the agency had not considered all the risks the proposed rule might create. They recalled that there have been two incidents since 2011 where the protective linings of cryogenic tank cars have been breached. Since the LNG industry continues to grow, the senators worry that increased rail transport of LNG will lead to more such incidents.

The senators have reason to be concerned. In 2016, a crude oil train derailed and caught on fire in their home state of Oregon. The accident released 42,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River Gorge. Due to the geography of the area, emergency response crews faced difficulties in quickly reaching the site. The senators noted that LNG’s high flammability can cause even hotter and more explosive fires than crude oil, a fact that the proposed rule does not cover in detail.

Environmental advocacy groups have similarly criticized the proposed rule. In a comment, Bradley Marshall and Jordan Luebkemann of Earthjustice have stated that PHMSA’s proposal is “unlawful” and fails to address potential adverse effects. Since LNG is more explosive than other cryogenic liquids being shipped by rail, an LNG accident in a populated area could have disastrous consequences.

Marshall and Luebkemann have reportedly found that 3.4% of DOT-113 tank cars have been damaged since 1980. Furthermore, they have observed that PHMSA provided no new data or justification to show that the safety of these tank cars has improved.

PHMSA received almost 400 comments before the comment period closed on January 13, 2020. The agency will now have to consider these comments before issuing any final rule.

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    NYTimes on oil train disasters since Lac-Mégantic: “Deadly Cargo Still Rides the Rails”

    Rail Industry Publication Attacks New York Times Over Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Tragedy

    DeSmog, By Justin Mikulka, August 26, 2019 (Read time: 7 mins)
    Lac-Megantic oil train fire
    Train burning in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Credit: Transportation Safety Board of Canada, via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Six years after the oil train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec — which claimed 47 lives and destroyed the downtown of this small lakeside town — The New York Times reviewed what progress has been made since the disaster, with a headline that noted “Deadly Cargo Still Rides the Rails.”

    However, Railway Age, the leading rail industry publication, attacked The Times’ coverage in an incredibly flawed critique. The title of finance editor David Nahass’s take-down is “Clickbait Journalism at The New York Times.”

    In reality, both stories miss the mark on oil train safety.

    The New York Times makes a major error in the industry’s favor regarding rail safety, as well as serious omissions about the risks of moving flammable cargo by rail.

    Nevertheless, Nahass claims that The New York Times “sadly exhumes and retreads the memories of those lost and the pain of those who suffered trauma in order to generate readership.”

    Distorting Reality

    Nahass did get one thing correct in his story, which comes across like rail industry propaganda: “The perception of progress on the rail safety front is not universally perceived.” It isn’t universally perceived because, for the transport of flammable materials by rail, progress hasn’t happened. Instead, the Trump administration is in the process of rolling back the few meaningful regulations that had been put in place in the U.S. since the 2013 disaster.

    To support his claim, Nahass points to three areas that he says have seen improvements in rail safety: tank car design, positive train control (PTC), and train speed guidelines.

    Nahass cites the new tank car designs, DOT-117R and DOT-117J, as an industry action to improve oil train safety. But that claim is based on the premise that these rail cars do not rupture during accidents. Three accidents involving the DOT-117R tank cars have occurred in recent years, two with oil trains and one with an ethanol train.

    As DeSmog has reported, all three were major disasters.

    In June of 2018, an oil train derailed in Doon, Iowa. Fourteen of the DOT-117R tank cars ruptured, spilling 230,000 gallons of oil into a flooded river. In February, another oil train of DOT-117R tank cars derailed in Canada, resulting in another major oil spill. In April, an ethanol train with DOT-117R tank cars derailed and exploded in Texas, leading to the local evacuation of a residential area and causing a large fire that burned a stable and killed three horses.

    Three crashes with the new “safe” tank cars. Three major failures. Railway Age’s failure to mention these accidents can only be described as “an editorial issue” of the type Nahass accuses The New York Times as being guilty of.

    The one glaring error in favor of the rail industry from the Times’ coverage is that the “effectiveness [of DOT-117 tank cars] in a real-world disaster remains to be seen.” Considering all three accidents involving these rail cars resulted in fires, spills, and evacuations, this statement is a huge error. The rail industry’s top trade magazine should have been thanking The Times instead of attacking them.

    As for the claim that speed limits have improved rail safety, that claim, too, is without merit. Every major oil train accident after the Lac-Mégantic disaster has happened below the speed limits. DOT-117 tank cars appear unable to withstand derailments at low speeds, as evidenced by them failing in three out of three accidents.

    The sheer audacity of Nahass claiming that the rail industry deserves credit for positive train control (PTC), a system for monitoring and controlling train movements, as a safety measure is stunning.

    As documented on DeSmog, PTC was first recommended as a safety measure almost 50 years ago. The industry has fought against this critical safety technology for the ensuing five decades, has ignored a 2008 Congressional mandate to implement the technology by 2015, and continues to delay rolling out this proven safety measure. A top rail lobbyist was even given an award for his work in delaying its implementation.

    Nahass says, “Avoidable death is a tragedy no one should have to bear.” Hundreds of people have died because the rail industry has been fighting PTC, which includes well-funded lobbying efforts. Avoidable deaths are not a tragedy for the rail industry but a by-product of successful lobbying and higher profits.

    Meanwhile, neither The New York Times nor Railway Age mentions how new regulations to require modern braking systems on trains, which still use 19th century technology were repealed under the Trump administration.

    Lac-Mégantic Was ‘a Corporate Crime Scene’

    Shortly after the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster, Martin Lukacs, columnist for The Guardian, wrote a prophetic statement: “The explosion in Lac-Mégantic is not merely a tragedy. It is a corporate crime scene.”

    At DeSmog — and in more detail in my book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk— we have documented how this disaster was the result of lax regulation and corporate cost-cutting. Yet Nahass ignores all of that information when saying the accident was a result of three events, none of which were related to the root cause of the problems leading to the accident.

    Even the Transportation Safety Board of Canada noted 18 factors that contributed to the deadly oil train accident. The fact that Nahass only listed three of these is another example of a blatant “editorial issue.”

    Deregulation Caused Lac-Mégantic Deaths and Continues to Increase Risks

    Nahass purports that the worst thing about The New York Times story was that “it highlights deregulation as a possible cause for the tragedy.” I have no doubt deregulation was the root cause of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

    The accident could have been avoided if a back-up braking system had been engaged. But this system wasn’t used because the rail company, Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA), wasn’t required to and instead explicitly instructed the train’s engineer not to engage it.

    The train was also much heavier than allowed. MMA knew this but instructed the engineer to ignore that fact, a sign of weak regulatory oversight. Despite attempts to require two-persons crews, the train that destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic was allowed to be operated with only a single crew member — another risk factor. No regulations required the oil in the tank cars to have been “stabilized,” removing its flammable vapors. At the time, modern braking systems were not mandatory for trains carrying flammable cargo, and while a rule changing that was put in place in 2015, the Trump administration has since repealed it.

    That fateful night in Quebec in 2013, a train full of flammable material was parked on the top of a steep hill above a small town. It was left on the main tracks, with the engine running, and no safety measures were in place to address known causes of runaway trains — a problem that The Times correctly notes has gotten worse since 2013.

    However, Railway Age defends deregulation as a way to improve safety, even after the recent deadly Boeing airline disastersthat also seem to have roots in industry deregulation.

    At a November 2016 conference examining lessons from the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Brian Stevens, who at the time was National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, clearly cited deregulation as the root cause of the accident.

    Lac-Mégantic started in 1984. It was destined to happen,” said Stevens, referring to the start of a deregulatory era for rail that continues today in both the U.S. and Canada.

    These days, the Trump administration is actively working to roll back recently passed federal rules governing the rail industry. The Federal Railroad Administration has explicitly stated a focus on removing regulations and letting rail companies volunteer to implement safety measures.

    Even that freedom from regulation isn’t enough for the rail industry. Its main publication wants freedom from journalistic critique as well. The attack piece in Railway Age is not just an egregious editorial failure; it represents a basic moral failure of an industry that continues to put profit over safety.

    Main Image: Train burning in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Credit: Transportation Safety Board of Canada, via CC BYNCND 2.0

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      Big Oil aims to buy democracy in WA State

      Repost from Sightline Institute 
      This article is part of the series Look Who’s Taking Oil & Coal Money 

      BIG OIL AIMS TO BUY DEMOCRACY IN WASHINGTON

      Local Northwest elections targeted with huge fossil fuel spending.
      By Eric de Place, October 25, 2017 6:30 am
      Bow of oil tanker by Roy Luck used under CC BY 2.0

      With no statewide races or federal level races, 2017 is supposed to be an “off” year election. But for the fossil fuel industry and their allies it’s proving to be a spending bonanza. Coal, oil, and railroad shippers have dumped a jaw-dropping $1.5 million into three relatively small caliber Washington races: a Vancouver port commission seat, a state senate race in suburban King County, and a Spokane city ballot initiative.

      Coal, oil, and railroad shippers have dumped a jaw-dropping $1.5 million into three relatively small caliber Washington races.

      The big media story this election has been at the Port of Vancouver, where the oil company Tesoro aims to build a 360,000 barrel-per-day oil train facility called Vancouver Energy. Two of the three port commissioners back the project, but the outcome of the election could change that. Candidate Don Orange is likely to join current port commissioner Eric LaBrant in opposing Tesoro’s plans, and they could end the project by declining to renew the company’s lease.

      Running against Orange is Kris Greene with heavy backing from the company he would be responsible for permitting. So far, the project’s backer has contributed a staggering $370,000 to Greene, far and away the largest corporate donation in the history of Vancouver’s port and the largest direct donation to any candidate in all of Washington in 2017. This princely sum comes on top of a $162,000 independent expenditure from Enterprise WA Jobs, a political action committee (PAC). The biggest donors to the PAC this year are none other than Tesoro to the tune of $200,000 and BNSF with $215,000, the two companies who profit from the terminal’s operations.

      Reports from the Columbian newspaper have also revealed a shocking degree of coordination between Greene and his oil business sponsors. In effect, Tesoro has operated Greene’s campaign, doing everything from writing his press releases to speaking for the campaign to hiring DC-based communications firms with connections to some of the worst anti-environmental campaigns in the nation. (Tesoro is no stranger to big spending for right-wing spending in Washington, but 2017 marks a new level of aggression for the Texas oil company.) In September, Greene’s former campaign manager Robert Sabo even quit because of Tesoro’s outside influence on the campaign. He told the Columbian in an article earlier this month “Big Oil is completely dictating where every penny is going.”

      Meanwhile, a state senate race on the eastside of Lake Washington is setting new spending records. The match in the 45th district pits Republican Jinyoung Englund against Democrat Manka Dhingra in a contest that could have major implications for the state legislature. If Dhingra wins, the Senate will flip to the Democrats, giving them majorities in both houses along with control of the governor’s office. Democratic control would likely take action on long-stalled environmental priorities like oil transportation safety requirements, funding for toxic waste cleaning up and prevention, or statewide clean energy investments.

      A trio of right-wing PACs are spending big to support Republican Englund with a combined $820,000. The same Enterprise WA Jobs PAC playing in the Vancouver race is also spending big in the 45th. Beyond the hundreds of thousands from Tesoro and BNSF, the PAC has another $100,000 from Chevron and $25,000 from Koch Industries (the fossil fuel company of Koch Brothers notoriety). Meanwhile, the Citizens for Progress Enterprise WA PAC is registering another $350,000 from Texas oil company Phillips 66. And the Leadership Council PAC shows yet more oil and railroad money: $25,000 more from Tesoro, $20,000 from BNSF, and $10,000 from Union Pacific.

      Backing Democrat Dhingra are the New Directions PAC and the Working Families PAC, with funding from State Democratic Campaign Committee, The Leadership Council, state unions, the Washington Conservation Voters, and big national names like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.

      In Spokane, a citizen’s ballot initiative, Proposition 2, proposes to levy fees on coal and oil trains that pass through the city. It has garnered predictable opposition from fossil fuel companies, as well as the railroads that ship their products. So far, the industry’s PAC has $180,454 worth of contributions, including an eyebrow-raising October contribution of $39,500 from Lighthouse Resources, the struggling company behind a Longview coal terminal development that was effectively killed by state permitting agencies in September. Lighthouse had previously given $25,000 to the PAC, an amount that was matched by Cloud Peak, a company that exports modest volumes of coal via a terminal in British Columbia, as well as Tesoro, and the railroads BNSF and Union Pacific.

      The Northwest is proving to be the graveyard of ambitions for coal, oil, and gas schemes as a region-wide groundswell of opposition has fought back project after project. Now, stymied at every turn, the fossil fuel industry is deploying what may be its most dangerous weapon: piles of cash and a willingness to overwhelm democratic institutions, even at a local level. If the “off” year elections of 2017 prove successful for Big Oil, there is every reason to think the industry will play hardball in the big ticket races of 2018.

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        Rail industry phasing out DOT-111 tank cars involved in derailments ahead of deadline

        Repost from The Jamestown Sun

        Rail industry phasing out tank cars involved in Casselton derailment ahead of deadline

        By John Hageman, Oct 24, 2017 12:27 p.m.
        A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably as seen in this photograph Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

        BISMARCK — Amid declining shipments, the rail industry is phasing out “less-safe” tank cars carrying crude oil ahead of rapidly approaching deadlines to do so.

        The federally mandated deadlines to remove the DOT-111 tank cars from oil service came after several high-profile derailments involving Bakken crude. That included the deadly Lac-Megantic, Quebec, disaster in 2013 and the explosion near Casselton, N.D., later that year.

        As of Jan. 1, DOT-111 cars without a protective steel layer known as a jacket can no longer carry crude oil. Those cars with the jacket must be phased out two months later.

        A U.S. Department of Transportation report sent to Congress last month shows the number of those cars carrying crude oil has dropped dramatically over the past few years. In 2013, 14,337 of them carried crude oil, which sank to 366 last year.

        That shift has been aided by a steep decline in Williston Basin rail exports over the past few years. A rush of activity in western North Dakota forced oil onto the tracks, but pipelines are now the dominant form of oil transportation, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

        “The first phase, in terms of removing the DOT-111s … that’s moving along very nicely,” said John Byrne, vice chairman of the Railway Supply Institute’s Committee on Tank Cars. “Because there’s a surplus of cars available to take them out of service and replace them with compliant cars.”

        Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the Dakota Access Pipeline helped push oil off the tracks when it went online earlier this year. But rail shipments across the country have been declining since 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.

        The latest BNSF Railway Co. report provided by the state Department of Emergency Services, dated September, shows as many as three oil trains moved through Cass County in one week, down from a high of 56 first reached in 2014.

        Pointing to increased training for first responders, DES Hazardous Chemical Officer Jeff Thompson said they’re “more comfortable with the situation than we were before.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve let their guard down.

        “There’s always the fear that (it) happens in the middle of a town. And that goes with all train derailments, not just crude oil,” he said.

        About 476,000 gallons of oil spilled near Casselton in late December 2013 after an oil train slammed into a derailed grain car, sparking a fireball over the snowy landscape. Residents evacuated, but there were no deaths or serious injuries, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

        Oil spilled from 18 of the derailed DOT-111 cars in that incident, according to the NTSB, which “long had concerns” about the “less-safe” tank cars because they’re not puncture resistant, have relatively thin shells and lack thermal protection.

        In announcing the agency’s findings on the Casselton derailment in February, the NTSB’s then-Chairman Christopher Hart said “progress toward removing or retrofitting DOT-111s has been too slow.” Thousands of those cars are still being used to carry ethanol and other flammable liquids, which have later phase-out dates, according to the transportation department’s report.

        By 2029, flammable liquids can only be carried in DOT-117s, which have thicker shells and insulating material, Byrne said. The new and retrofitted versions of those cars now represent 9 percent of the fleet carrying Class 3 flammable liquids, which includes crude oil and ethanol, according the transportation department report.

        “There’s been a huge improvement in the overall safety of the cars moving crude today versus what we were looking at in 2013, 2014,” Byrne said.

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