DOT proposes stricter oil train safety rules

Repost from Politico

DOT proposes stricter oil train safety rules

By Kathryn A. Wolfe  | 7/23/14
Anthony Foxx is pictured. | M.Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO
Anthony Foxx’s announcement follows a year-long spree of oil train crashes. | M.Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced its long-awaited proposal to improve the safety of oil trains, a step meant to address a series of fiery derailments that have raised fears about the dark side of the North American energy boom.

The proposed rules include mandates for phasing out older, less-sturdy rail tank cars during the next two to five years, tightened speed limits, improved brakes and steps to address concerns that crude oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken region is unusually volatile or flammable. The rules also include provisions that would affect the shipment of ethanol, another flammable liquid frequently transported by rail.

“We need a new world order on how this stuff moves,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters in making the announcement.

“More crude oil is being shipped by rail than ever before,” Foxx said. “If America is going to be a world leader in producing energy, our job at this department is to ensure that we’re also a world leader in safely transporting it.”

The details of the White House-vetted proposal had been the subject of fierce lobbying by the oil industry, which maintains that Bakken crude doesn’t pose unusual dangers, and the railroads, which have long called for tougher tank-car standards but objected to calls for reduced speed limits. The rules would offer both industries incentives to go along — for instance, oil trains meeting the toughened standards for crashworthiness and brakes could travel as fast as 50 mph in all areas, while those that don’t could be limited to 30 mph or 40 mph.

“The fact that the proposed rule incorporates several of the voluntary operating practices we have already implemented demonstrates the railroad industry’s ongoing commitment to rail safety,” Ed Hamberger, CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said in a statement Wednesday. “We look forward to providing data-driven analyses of the impacts various provisions of the proposal will have on both freight customers and passenger railroads that ship millions of tons of goods and serve millions of commuters and travelers across the nationwide rail network every day.”

The American Petroleum Institute initially said it would review the proposal, but it later blasted out a statement rejecting “speculation by the Department of Transportation” about the safety of transporting Bakken crude.

“Multiple studies have shown that Bakken crude is similar to other crudes,” CEO Jack Gerard said. “DOT needs to get this right and make sure that its regulations are grounded in facts and sound science, not speculation.”

The DOT proposal drew initial praise from lawmakers, along with some calls to go further.

Wednesday’s rollout followed months of interim rules and voluntary agreements with the railroad and oil industries. It also came after a year-long spree of oil train crashes in communities from Quebec and North Dakota to western Pennsylvania, rural Alabama and Lynchburg, Virginia — including one that killed 47 people in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic last July.

Even without any fatalities so far in the U.S., oil train accidents in 2014 have already shattered records for property damage, based on POLITICO’s review of data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. As of late May — a month after the Lynchburg derailment — the damage toll exceeded $10 million through mid-May, nearly triple the damage for all of 2013. The number of incidents at that point in the year — 70 — was also on pace to set a record.

Oil trains have also inspired local opposition in communities from Albany, New York, to Washington state and the San Francisco Bay area, where residents expressed alarm at finding that they had become key way stations in a network of virtual pipelines that carry oil from production hot spots like North Dakota and western Canada.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged DOT to see that the rules are “finalized, implemented and enforced as soon as possible.”

“These desperately needed safety regulations will phase out the aged and explosion-prone … tanker cars that are hauling endless streams of highly flammable crude oil through communities across the country and New York,” Schumer said in a statement Wednesday.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said the proposal “appears to be comprehensive,” adding that “we will continue to review these proposed standards to ensure they are workable and will keep our communities safe.”

But Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing DOT, said in a statement that “there is still more work to be done, by both regulators and industry.”

“I’m pleased that the proposed regulations address issues I outlined in the 2015 transportation spending bill, like enhanced rail tank car standards and improved classification of flammable liquids, that are much-needed steps to improve the safety of our rail system,” Murray said.