Category Archives: US Department of Transportation

The federal government’s repeated failure to address the volatility of the oil moving by rail in America

Repost from DeSmog

Federal Government Foot-Dragging Helps Oil Industry Delay Oil-by-Rail Rules

By Justin Mikulka, April 5, 2019 – 13:18

In an attempt to reduce the risk of fiery oil train accidents, the state of Washington is working to pass a bill that would limit the vapor pressure of oil on trains to below 9 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a measure of the volatility of flammable liquids and correlates to their likelihood of igniting. Higher vapor pressure means an oil is more volatile and more likely to ignite and burn when a train derails.

If the federal government won’t act to protect public safety and adopt a safer nationwide standard, we will adopt our own,” state Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said of the bill he sponsored. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.”

Billig’s comments point to the federal government’s repeated failure to address the volatility of the oil moving by rail in America.

The Obama administration specifically left this issue out of the Department of Transportation’s 2015 regulations on moving oil by rail. In May 2017, half a dozen state attorneys general petitioned the federal government to regulate vapor pressure, which resulted in a proposed rule at the end of the Obama administration.

This oil train vapor pressure rule has gone nowhere in the Trump administration.

As DeSmog reported in 2016, the American Petroleum Institute has said that even having these discussions about regulating oil vapor pressure is “dangerous.”

Exploding oil train fireball in Casselton, North Dakota
The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, North Dakota. Credit: U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration

Unsurprisingly, the state of North Dakota, where much of the highly volatile crude oil moved by rail in America is produced, opposes Washington state’s rule and is preparing to sue the state over it.

However, in a surprising moment of honesty, North Dakota’s top oil regulator didn’t bother pretending this opposition was about safety and instead revealed the real motivation: money.

Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, said that taking the steps to stabilize the crude oil (remove its volatile natural gas liquids) and achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9 psi would “devalue the crude oil immensely.”

The crude coming out of oil fields like North Dakota’s Bakken Shale is rich in natural gas liquids such as propane and butane, which make the oil more dangerous to transport but also more valuable. A value the industry and its allies in government aren’t willing to relinquish.

However, this isn’t really news. I wrote about a similar message from a North Dakota oil producer in 2014 when he too was opposing regulations to reduce the vapor pressure of Bakken oil before rail transport.

The flammable characteristics of our product are actually a big piece of why this product is so valuable. That is why we can make these very valuable products like gasoline and jet fuel,” said Tony Lucero of oil producer Enerplus.

North Dakota Using Federal Government Delays to Avoid Regulation

Once trains carrying volatile oil from the Bakken Shale started blowing up on a regular basis in 2013, it became clear that the oil itself was part of the problem. Its high amounts of natural gas liquids make the oil more volatile and therefore more likely to catch fire and explode.

After the deadly oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people, there was confusion about the associated explosions and intense fires that burned for days. As the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, an oil executive said, “Crude oil doesn’t explode like that.”

Which is true. But crude oil mixed with lots of propane and butane, such as the Bakken’s crude oil, does explode like that. And trains carrying oil from the Bakken continued to explode like that after derailing again and again.

Rainy Day Train Message/Oil Train Protesters. Credit: Joe BruskyCC BYNC 2.0

The Obama administration argued that it couldn’t regulate oil vapor pressure because the issue was disputed scientifically and required more study. More than three years ago, I wrote that this was simply a delay tactic and that claiming the oil industry didn’t understand the fundamental science of crude oil was absurd:

“The oil industry and the government regulators in charge of regulating the industry don’t understand the basic science of oil. This is the core of the argument used to justify why they continue to run dangerous trains filled with Bakken oil through communities across North America. Do you believe them?

Despite the audacity of this position, it is being used to delay any new regulations and to support the idea that the mystery of why Bakken crude oil explodes must be studied for years before it would be possible to make any regulatory decisions.”

Meanwhile, as I’ve also been writing for years, if you ask an oil expert like Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Houston, you learn that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The notion that this requires significant research and development is a bunch of BS,” Krishnamoorti wrote in an email response to Al Jazeera. “The science behind this has been revealed over 80 years ago, and developing a simple spreadsheet to calculate risk based on composition and vapor pressure is trivial. This can be done today.” [emphasis added]

The Departments of Energy and Transportation announced the start of a study that was supposed to resolve this issue — four years ago — in April of 2015. At the time, regulators referred to it as a two-year study.

In late 2016, at the Energy by Rail Conference in Arlington, Virginia, Suzanne Lemieux of the American Petroleum Institute gave a presentation on crude oil volatility and stabilization. While arguing once again that there wasn’t clear evidence that stabilizing oil reduces its volatility and risk, Lemieux noted that the federal study on the issue had been delayed. She said now it was expected to conclude sometime in 2018.

The explanation for the delay was that the researchers at Sandia National Laboratories were still collecting samples of the oil in late 2016 — almost a year and a half after the “two-year” study was announced.

And now, four years later, according to The Bismarck Tribune, North Dakota oil regulator Lynn Helms “encouraged [Washington] legislators to wait for the results of a Sandia National Laboratories study that was commissioned by the U.S.Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Energy.”

Four years later. The federal government is unable to complete a two-year study in four years on a question which oil experts already know the answer to.

A very effective delay tactic that means no one can “devalue” the oil implicated in multiple explosions and 47 deaths.

Main image: Screen shot of McClatchy article combined with Justin Mikulka’s oil train photo and text. Credit: Justin Mikulka 

Trump Admin: Safer Brakes on Speeding Oil Trains–Who Needs ‘Em?

Repost from ClimateNexus HOT NEWS
[Editor: See details in The HillFortune, and Buzzfeed 

…  and background here on the Benicia Independent: Positive Train Control and Crude By Rail ARCHIVE  – R.S.]

SUMMARY: Trump rolls back oil train safety rule

Crude oil unit train, Davis, CA

The Trump administration on Monday moved to roll back an Obama-era safety rule mandating that oil trains carrying crude oil install more sophisticated brakes.

The Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said that it found the cost of installing electronically controlled pneumatic brake systems, which reduce the risk of car derailment, would be higher than the safety benefits it delivers.

This mimics claims from the railroad industry, which has said that installing electronic breaks on oil rail cars would cost $3 billion.

Around 20 derailments, including accidents with fatalities, have occurred since 2010, in part due to increased train traffic due to a boost in oil production. (Details at The HillFortuneBuzzfeed.)

The Trump Admin’s Misleading Justifications for Repealing This Oil Train Safety Rule

Repost from DeSmogBlog

The Trump Admin’s Misleading Justifications for Repealing This Oil Train Safety Rule

By Justin Mikulka • Sunday, December 10, 2017 – 05:02
Scrabble board spelling 'deception,' 'donor,'profit,' and 'fail'
Image: Justin Mikulka

On December 4, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it would repeal a critical safety regulation for modern braking systems on the same oil trains which have derailed, spilled oil, caught fire, exploded, and even killed dozens in multiple high profile accidents in recent years.

The regulation, released by the DOT‘s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in mid 2015, required that oil trains have modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems by 2021. However, in the latest iteration of its review process for this rule, the DOT is now doing an about-face.

Why would the DOT, as the regulator responsible for protecting 25 million people who live along railroad tracks carrying oil trains, reverse course on a technology hailed as “the greatest safety improvement” for modern trains? Let’s take a look at corporate influence on the regulatory process.

In 2015, shortly after these regulations were announced, Matthew Rose, CEO of oil-by-rail leader BNSF, stated that the rail industry would not accept the requirement for ECP brakes, telling an audience at the annual Energy Information Administration conference that “the only thing we don’t like about [the new regulation] is the electronic braking” and “this rule will have to be changed in the future.”

Two years later, Rose appears to have been granted his wish.

The Congressional Cop Out

The first stop for CEOs who don’t like regulations is their friends in Congress. After an initial failed attempt to get the Senate to repeal the ECP brake requirement on oil trains, the groundwork to repeal this regulation was laid in the research requirements in the FAST Act of 2015. The FAST Act was a massive transportation bill, and within its thousands of pages, it said this:

The Secretary [of Transportation] shall enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences to–

(A) complete testing of ECP brake systems during emergency braking application, including more than one scenario involving the uncoupling of a train with 70 or more DOT-117 specification or DOT-117R specification tank cars

Testing framework.–In completing the testing under paragraph (1), the National Academy of Sciences and each contractor described in paragraph (2) shall ensure that the testing objectively, accurately, and reliably measures the performance of ECP brake systems relative to other braking technologies or systems, such as distributed power and 2-way end-of-train devices. [Emphasis added.]

While this sounds like a good starting point, it fails to acknowledge the large body of existing research which has already answered these questions. ECP brakes perform much better than other, older braking systems.

In the past two decades, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the AAR’s research group, the major railroads, and most certainly people who have operated a train with ECP brakes are on the record saying these brakes improve safety.

It’s only recently that the railroads and their lobbyists at the AAR have changed their minds. However, that doesn’t change the existing science that shows ECP brakes are superior — and safer.

However, even pushing aside previous studies — such as the 2006 FRA funded one which calls ECP brakes “a tested technology that offers major benefits in freight train handling, car maintenance, fuel savings, and network capacity” which “could significantly enhance rail safety and efficiency” — perhaps the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) could provide valuable confirmation of these safety benefits with its own study.

Perhaps performing yet another review of ECP brakes would convince industry and its lobbyists of this technology’s value?

But rather than having the DOT base its final decision to require ECP brakes on a larger body of existing evidence, Congress called on the NAS to perform a single study to determine if ECP brakes were safer than the brakes currently in use on oil trains. That is already a highly suspect approach, but one which provides the appearance of integrity.

So, what did the NAS conclude?

It wouldn’t do the study, because, as the academy said in a March 2016 letter to the FRA, it would be too expensive. This is the DOT’s explanation:

“In the letter, NAS referred to a preliminary cost estimate of more than $100 million provided by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) to perform the testing … Additionally, NAS believed it was ‘highly unlikely’ that the schedule [for performing the study] … could be met.”

The one and only study that would determine the fate of this regulation was never performed, but make note of who provided the extremely high cost estimate: the AAR. This is the same trade group whose CEO said, “Industry research and years of experimenting in real-world operating environments show ECP brakes are unreliable and have a minimal safety impact over conventional braking systems currently in place.”

In other words, lobbyists for the railroad industry were charged with estimating the cost of conducting a test to evaluate a safety technology they were on record of opposing and their price tag was so high that the testing never happened. They also apparently told the NAS that the testing couldn’t meet the required timeline. Coincidence?

Furthermore, the only facility where the testing apparently could have taken place is run by an organization fully funded by the AAR.

However, the DOT had a solution for this apparent crisis. First, they determined testing was impossible “because the specific party that DOT was required to contract with declined to do the testing as described in the FAST Act and such testing was not otherwise feasible from both a budgetary and time perspective.”

Next, the agency needed a backup plan which made it appear as if the congressionally mandated study were completed and which could also use the National Academy of Sciences to verify that plan.

As an alternative, DOT proposed to “meet the intent of the FAST Act by contracting with NAS to review and monitor a test plan” that was intended to accomplish the same goal as the study that would now not happen.

Everything was in place to “meet the intent” of the FAST Act although the intent was starting to become suspect.

National Academy of Sciences Does Not Live Up to Its Name

When the DOT announced the repeal of the ECP brake regulation, it gave the NAS plenty of credit for the decision, saying in its press release:

“The National Academy of Sciences determined it was unable to make a conclusive statement regarding the emergency performance of ECP brakes relative to other braking systems.”

However, the NAS did not actually test the performance of ECP brakes, calling into question the robustness of this statement. However, the academy was going to “review and monitor a test plan,” which it did.

While it is technically accurate to say that the NAS was unable “to make a conclusive statement” on this issue, the reality is that the academy wasn’t asked to do that. How do we know? Because the NAS was very clear about what it was not doing now that its scientists wouldn’t be studying ECP braking performance against other systems.

In the NAS report provided to the DOT as part of the backup plan, the academy said:

This report is not intended to be a comprehensive consideration of the performance of ECP brakes relative to that of other braking systems, nor is it intended to analyze the maximum capabilities of a brake system in dissipating energy during an emergency braking event and reducing the incidence and severity of spills from derailments.”

What the NAS did instead was examine the DOT’s own research and testing on ECP braking and conclude it was lacking in several areas.

The DOT statement makes it appear that NAS performed original research or reviewed the breadth of existing research and was unable to reach a conclusion. Neither of those are true.

And in an NAS letter, Louis J. Lanzerotti, the chair of the NAS committee giving its blessing to all this, went out of his way to clarify what the committee was not doing in a slide titled, “Aspects Outside of the Statement of Task.”

Now, remember what the DOT said about the national academy’s role in the decision to repeal the regulation.

Yet the chair of the NAS committee charged with this task specifically said a conclusion on the emergency performance of ECP brakes versus other braking systems was outside its purview. This makes the DOT statement seem more than a bit misleading. But it worked as major media outlets made the mistake of believing the DOT and so the public got messages like this from the media:

“’The costs of this mandate would exceed three-fold the benefits it would produce,’ the DOT said in a statement — that’s according to studies by the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board and the U.S.Government Accountability Office.”

However, Lanzerotti’s presentation makes clear the NAS did not consider costs or benefits. Yet the academy is credited with a study supposedly making such a conclusion about costs and benefits.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Theoretically, the regulators are supposed to be the ones keeping the public safe. But what happens when the system has been corrupted and they no longer play that role?

In theory, that is why we have the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In addition to the NAS “study,” the DOT is now relying heavily on a 2016 GAO audit to back up the safety rule’s repeal (which coincidentally was ripped apart by the agency in its initial comments on the audit).

What exactly did the GAO find? Not much. It said that the DOT could benefit from “additional data and transparency.” This GAO conclusion has been used to attack the regulation by a member of the Senate and the CEO of the AAR, and was repeated in a trade publication.

However, this is where the situation gets a bit shady. Was the DOT intentionally withholding data to try to influence the regulation? No.

The issue the GAO found was that the rail industry refused to share the data it had on ECP braking with the DOT. And yet the GAO turned a failure by the rail industry into a criticism of the DOT, even going as far as putting this in the title of its audit.

Why would the industry fail to share this information? Perhaps the reason is that its leaders know the data doesn’t help them.

The other major problem with the GAO report is that it accepted without question industry estimates for many other parts of the analysis while at the same time questioning DOT’s methods. This refusal to question any of industry’s claims is something DOT pointed out in its own highly critical comments included in the final report.

DOT asserts that the agency even provided information challenging industry claims on ECP brakes, but the GAO refused to include this information in the audit’s final report, which was then touted by critics of the regulation as reason to repeal it.

And what was the result of all this? The industry got exactly what it wanted. Under the Trump administration, the DOT now cited the accountability office’s work (of which it had been previously quite critical) as one of the deciding factors for rolling back the safety regulation.

Reality vs. Repeal

As we have been documenting here at DeSmog, there is a wealth of research and real world experience showing ECP brakes as a superior train technology. Much of that information is available in our reports from 20172015, and 2014. A former head of the FRA even said ECP braking “offers a quantum improvement in rail safety.”

At a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing in April of 2014, Richard Connor, safety specialist for the FRA, which is part of DOT, gave a presentation comparing the conventional air brake system used on most freight trains to the ECP brakes.

I’m not sure with the audience if you all understand how the current air brake systems on our freight trains out there operate today, but it’s basically 19th century technology,” said Connor.

Connor went on to describe the performance of traditional brakes in an emergency situation as “painfully slow” when compared to ECP braking response times.

One of the biggest advantages of ECP is that signal to apply your brakes … is going at the speed of light … it’s a much quicker signal,” he said.

That was a safety specialist for the Department of Transportation. But three years later, somehow the DOT and FRA have decided that going with “19th century technology” is the best approach.

What has changed from two years ago when the FRA told DeSmog that these brakes “could significantly enhance rail safety and efficiency”?

John Risch has some insight into that. Risch has 40 years of experience in the rail industry and is a national legislative director for SMARTTD, a labor union that represents employees on every Class I railroad, Amtrak, and on many regional and shortline railroads. As recently as 2009, Risch was operating trains hauling coal.

Commenting on the recent repeal, Risch said:

Clearly the railroad industry’s overwhelming influence over the Trump administration is paying off in repealing the ECP brake rule. ECP brakes are the safest, most advanced braking systems in the world and without some government requirement we will continue to use our current, outdated 150 year old braking technology for the foreseeable future.”

Oil Train Safety Rules Getting Rolled Back By Trump Adminstration

Repost from KUOW Public Radio, Seattle, WA

Oil Train Safety Rules Getting Rolled Back By Trump Adminstration

By Courtney Flatt, December 6, 2017
<p>Crews subdued the fire from the oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, by the morning of Saturday, June 4, 2016. Cleanup on the oil spill and charred rail cars continued into the weekend.</p>
Crews subdued the fire from the oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, by the morning of Saturday, June 4, 2016. Cleanup on the oil spill and charred rail cars continued into the weekend. Photo: EMILY SCHWING

The Trump administration is rolling back a requirement for trains carrying highly explosive liquids — like the oil trains that run through the Columbia River Gorge en route to Northwest refineries.

The 2015 rule was supposed to make these hazardous trains more safe, following a number of derailments. But that was under President Obama, Now, President Trump’s Department of Transportation says railroads with trains carrying highly flammable liquids will not have to update their braking systems.

“The costs of this mandate would exceed three-fold the benefits it would produce,” the DOT said in a statement — that’s according to studies by the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Obama-era regulations required railroad companies to install electronically controlled pneumatic brakes by 2021. Those new systems were supposed to help prevent fiery crashes, like last year’s derailment in Mosier, Oregon. ECP brakes are supposed to brake faster because they signal instantaneously throughout the train.

The current industry-standard air brake technology has been in use for more than a century and had been involved in the deadly Lac Megantic derailment in 2013.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley criticized the decision.

“Oil trains are rolling explosion hazards, and as we’ve seen all too many times—and all too recently in Mosier—it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ oil train derailments will occur. Degrading oil train safety requirements is a huge step backward and one that puts our land, homes, and lives at risk,” Merkley said in a statement.

Industry groups applauded the decision. Chet Thompson, president and CEO of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, called the rollback a “rational decision.”

“While we support the use of improved safety technologies, (electronically controlled pneumatic) isn’t an improvement on other technologies currently in use, and would have imposed substantial costs to shippers,” Thompson said in a news release.

Conservation groups in the Northwest said the rollback was frustrating, but unsurprising. Dan Serres is the conservation director with Columbia Riverkeeper.

“We’re definitely frustrated that the Trump administration is weakening standards that are not strong enough to begin with,” Serres said. “We saw that with the Moiser derailment, potentially if there was a better braking system in place, we wouldn’t have seen so many cars come off the tracks.”

Serres said his group is now more committed to stopping oil terminal construction in the Northwest, if the federal government isn’t “holding the rail industry’s feet to the fire to improve the safety of these shipments.”