Responding to a series of fiery train crashes, the federal government proposed rules Wednesday that would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars that carry increasing quantities of crude oil and other highly flammable liquids through America’s towns and cities.
But many details were put off until later as regulators struggle to balance safety against the economic benefits of a fracking boom that has sharply increased U.S. oil production. Among the issues: What type of tank cars will replace those being phased out, how fast will they be allowed to travel and what kind of braking systems will they need?
Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources Inc. is the most active driller in the oil-rich Bakken field in North Dakota and is one of the leading companies using rail to transport its oil throughout the country.
“Overall, I’m glad the Department of Transportation has come out with their notice of proposed rules,” said Jeff Hume, Continental’s vice chairman of strategic growth initiatives. “We want to see the equipment and operation of the rail as safe as possible.”
The upgrades likely will add to the cost of transporting oil, but Hume said a reasonable cost hike will not slow the industry.
“It may be the cost of safety,” Hume said.
Accident investigators have complained for decades that older tank cars, known as DOT-111s, are too easily punctured or ruptured, spilling their contents when derailed. Since 2008, there have been 10 significant derailments in the United States and Canada in which crude oil has spilled from ruptured tank cars, often igniting and resulting in huge fireballs. The worst was a runaway oil train that exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic a year ago, killing 47 people.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he said he expects his department to complete final regulations before the end of the year. First, the public and affected industries will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal.
“We are at the dawn of a promising time for energy production in this country,” Foxx said. “This is a positive development for our economy and for energy independence, but the responsibilities attached to this production are very serious.”
In a report released with the rules, the Department of Transportation concluded oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, where fracking methods have created an oil boom, is more volatile than is typical for light, sweet crudes.
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