As US debates oil train safety, local rules gather steam

The US Department of Transportation is crafting new safety rules for oil train cars, hoping to lower the risk of disaster after several high-profile accidents. But in the meantime, states and cities are mulling action of their own – from making oil less volatile, to slapping fees on oil cars that run through cities.

Matthew Brown/AP/File
A warning placard on a tank car carrying crude oil near a loading terminal in Trenton, N.D. Thousands of older rail tank cars that carry crude oil would be phased out within two years under regulations proposed in response to a series of fiery train crashes over the past year.

While industry groups and environmentalists clash over proposed federal oil-train safety standards, states and cities are moving ahead with rules of their own.

Energy firms have turned en masse to US railways to ship booming oil supplies, which have outgrown the nation’s pipeline capacity. And a spate of high-profile oil train accidents has thrust crude-by-rail safety into the national spotlight. The federal government is currently working on national standards, which are proving divisive: Supporters hope tighter rules will protect communities from flammable liquids, while critics warn they threaten to derail a North American energy renaissance that is already constrained by inadequate infrastructure.    

The debate between boosting safety and helping the oil boom is playing out across communities on the front lines of the US energy boom.

On Monday, Nebraska decided to make public information on oil shipments by rail. North Dakota is considering tighter restrictions to make crude from its booming Bakken region less volatile. And Chicago wants to impose a fee on rails cars that chug through the city.

Local moves to bolster safety and ward off disaster come at a time when US oil production is surging, and record quantities of that oil are travelling by rail. Today, trains haul 11 percent of US oil – a huge jump from five years ago when just 1 percent of oil moved by train, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Without adequate pipeline infrastructure, rail is particularly critical in North Dakota, which provides nearly one in every eight barrels of oil produced in the United States. The state is considering new rules that would “stabilize” oil before its shipped – removing gases that may make light Bakken shale crude  volatile. In a hearing earlier last month, the oil industry pushed back against the tighter standards North Dakota is considering.

"We believe that Bakken crude oil is sufficiently prepared for transport in the field," Brent Lohnes, director of field and plant operations at Hess, an oil company, said at the hearing.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has backed a fee for rail cars that haul oil through the metropolitan area. Funds raised by that fee could be funneled into training and equipping firefighters to respond to rail catastrophes.

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Currently, many in Chicago worry that firefighters are ill-equipped for potential disasters like fiery derailments.

“When there’s a collision, a derailment, a fireball, a spill, how quick is a crew that’s prepared to deal with this going to get there?” asked Chicago Alderman Matthew O’Shea, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t want to find out the hard way.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is finding it difficult to please anyone in overhauling oil train safety.

In response to rail catastrophes in Lac-Megantic, Quebec and Casselton, North Dakota, DOT proposed new oil train rules in July to shore up safety for US trains ferrying crude. Those rules included lower speed limits, better brakes, safer routes around population centers, and new standards to phase out aging rail cars. Comments on the Department of Transportation’s proposed rules came in Tuesday, and few stakeholders were without complaint.  

Environmental groups criticized the rules for “weak safety standards” that would allow older rail cars to remain on the tracks.

“DOT falls short of its obligation to ensure that transport of volatile crude oil by rail is done in a safe and responsible manner,” says Devorah Ancel, Sierra Club staff attorney, in a statement Tuesday. “The proposed rule would keep thousands of communities in the US and Canada under the continued threat of catastrophic train crashes.”

The oil and railroad industry said DOT’s timeline for retiring or retrofitting old cars was unfeasible. DOT’s proposal aims to phase out old rail cars within two years. The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry group, has requested as much as seven years to make fixes.

“[The] timeline could harm consumers by disrupting the production and transportation of goods that play major roles in our economy, including chemicals, gasoline, crude oil and ethanol,” said Jack Gerard, API president and CEO, in a call with reporters Tuesday.

DOT is expected to finalize the rules early next year.

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