WASHINGTON — Spurred by a series of fiery train crashes, a push by government and industry to make safer tank cars used for shipping crude oil and ethanol has bogged down in squabbling over whether they’re needed and if so, who should pay.
The Department of Transportation, worried about the potential for catastrophic accidents involving oil and ethanol trains that are sometimes as many as 100 cars long, is drafting new tank-car regulations aimed at making the cars less likely to spill in a crash. But final rules aren’t expected until late this year at the earliest, and such government rulemaking can drag on for years.
The freight railroad industry proposed tougher tank-car standards last fall, and recently beefed up its proposal. The government and the Association of American Railroads say oil being shipped from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana may be more volatile than previously thought.
But oil companies — which own or lease the tank cars, and would have to bear much of the cost of tougher standards — want to stick to voluntary standards agreed to by both industries three years ago unless it can be shown that new standards are needed, American Petroleum Institute officials said. The railroads, they say, are refusing to share the “scientific basis” for their proposal.
The petroleum institute wants “a comprehensive examination” of changes proposed by the rail industry, including whatever computer-modeling was used to support tougher standards, said Brian Straessle, an institute spokesman.
But the government says it’s the oil industry that’s not sharing data. Transportation Department officials complained recently that the agency had received only limited data from a few oil companies on the safety characteristics of Bakken oil, despite requests made in January by Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Hundreds of oil producers, shippers, and brokers operate in the region. So far, only seven oil companies have responded, and several provided only sparse information, Foxx said. The government wants to know what is in the oil so regulators can decide what types of protections are needed for shipping, he said.
“One of the most fundamental questions that cuts across everything in crude oil by rail is how it is classified,” Foxx said. “If it is not classified correctly at the beginning, then it is not packaged correctly and the emergency response needs aren’t understood by the communities through which this material is moving.”
Production is booming
The oil industry is using every tank car available to keep up with the exponential growth in Bakken oil production since hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” made it possible to extract more oil. Freight railroads transported 434,032 carloads of crude in 2013, up from 9,500 in 2008.
Ethanol production has also skyrocketed, creating competition for available rail cars. About 69,000 carloads of ethanol was shipped on rails in 2005, compared to about 325,000 last year.
In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. It killed 47 people and incinerated 30 buildings.
Rail and safety officials said they were used to dealing with sludge-like crude that doesn’t ignite easily, but Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was comparable to gasoline.
There have been eight significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to a presentation by crash investigators at a two-day National Transportation Safety Board forum this week on the transport of crude oil and ethanol. Most of the accidents occurred in lightly populated areas, although one derailment and fire in December occurred less than two miles from the town of Casselton, N.D.
Railroads can’t be sure what they’re hauling, said Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of the rail association. They want oil to be shipped in tank cars with thicker shells, like those required for chemicals that form toxic vapor clouds when released.
Government and industry officials have reached consensus in some important areas, “but there are other areas where a lot of work needs to be done,” safety board Chairman Deborah Hersman said. “I think that’s the time when we need to be asking who needs to step in and make the final call … The discussions for consensus can go on and on and on, and they have.”
Transportation chief wants faster rule change
WASHINGTON — The head of the National Transportation Safety Board says the Obama administration needs to take steps immediately to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents even if it means using emergency authority.
Deborah Hersman, wrapping up a two-day forum on the rail transport of oil and ethanol, said the Transportation Department shouldn’t wait for the usual federal rulemaking process to run its course. She urged regulators to use their authority to issue emergency orders or interim rules to bring about tougher standards for tank cars used to haul oil and ethanol.
She said the risks of such accidents are clear and waiting will only lead to a “higher body count.”
Hersman praised Canadian authorities who announced Wednesday that they banning or phasing out older, more dangerous tank cars.