US proposes new oil train rules. Will they rein in spills?

The Obama administration proposed new safety rules on oil trains Wednesday after a string of recent incidents brought new attention to a growing method of oil transportation. As pipeline construction lags behind domestic oil production, energy companies are turning to rail to get their product to market.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/AP/File
A file photo shows smoke rising from railway cars carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec last year. The Obama administration unveiled new rules on oil trains Wednesday.

The US proposed new rules on oil trains Wednesday in an effort to improve the safety of transporting crude oil by rail across the the country. 

Domestic oil and gas production has boomed in recent years, causing energy companies to ship fuels via trains where pipelines are lacking or already at full capacity. That rise in oil by rail transportation has led to a string of recent high-profile explosions and accidents that have put a spotlight on the issue, particularly in communities through which these oil trains pass.

Wednesday's rules come in response to pressure on the administration to update regulations to match a growing industry. 

“Safety is our top priority, which is why I’ve worked aggressively to improve the safe transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials since my first week in office,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “While we have made unprecedented progress through voluntary agreements and emergency orders, today’s proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

The Department of Transportation's proposed rules call for better braking systems and tighter speed controls. They also aim to phase out older tankers within two years, or require that they be retrofitted with newer design standards. The proposals will undergo a 60-day public comment period before they are finalized. 

Rail associations and oil industry groups tout new safety advances and have largely welcomed the administration's new safety push. But they warn that too many restrictions would slow the economic development that has come with a resurgence in US oil. They also challenge assertions that the lighter, newer oil coming from North Dakota is more dangerous to transport than other crudes.

“Knowing that more can always be done, our focus is and always has been on enhancing safety by addressing accident prevention, mitigation and response in a comprehensive manner," Jack Gerard, chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, an oil-and-gas industry association, said in a statement Wednesday. “The government can and should take steps to ensure greater safety without stalling the energy renaissance that is creating good jobs, growing our economy and improving America’s energy security."

In 2008, US railways carried 9,500 carloads of crude oil across the country, according to the Association of American Railroads. By 2013, that number jumped to 407,761 carloads. While the overall safety record of US railways has improved over recent decades, the number of oil spills has increased dramatically due to the oil boom.

Between 1975 and 2012, US trains spilled about 800,000 gallons of crude oil, according to an analysis of federal data done by McClatchy Newspapers. That figure soared to more than 1.15 million gallons in last year alone. Recent incidents have also had a higher profile: Last July, an oil train explosion in Quebec killed 47 people. An oil train crashed in Alabama last November, sending flames 300 feet into the night sky and spilling thousands of barrels into a swamp.  

Environmental groups had mixed reactions to Wednesday's proposals, with some saying the new rules wouldn't do enough to protect communities from the transport of flammable liquids.

"[The Obama administration] severely underestimated the threat of these trains to the American public," Matt Krogh, a campaigner for ForestEthics, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, said in a statement Wednesday. “These are the heaviest, most dangerous trains on American tracks and they now pass through nearly every downtown in North America. The worst of these oil tanker cars are unsafe at any speed -- they should be banned immediately, not years down the line."

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