New Oil Train Rules Force Railroad Cos. To Plan For Worst

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Above Photo: BRENT FOSTER VIA AP, FILE

A little over a month after a Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed outside of the tiny Oregon known of Mosier, the Department of Transportation has announced new rules aimed at ensuring that communities near oil train routes have adequate information and help in the event of an oil derailment.

The new rules would, among other things, require railroad companies that ship oil by rail to come up with response plans in case of a worst-case scenario oil spill — something that most railroad companies are not currently required to do.

“Incidents involving crude oil can have devastating consequences to local communities and the environment. We’ve taken more than 30 actions in the last two years to continue to address risk, and we continue to push the industry to do more to prevent derailments from happening,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement Wednesday. “This rule goes one step further to hold industry accountable to plan and prepare for the worst case scenario. It would help to ensure that railroads have comprehensive plans to respond to derailments when they occur and better ensure the safety of communities living near railroads.”

The shipment of oil by rail has boomed in the last five years, increasing from less than 1 million barrels shipped via rail in 2010 to around 25 million in 2014, thanks, in large part, to the oil boom in North Dakota.

CREDIT: EIA DATA

CREDIT: EIA DATA

While it’s certainly true that the Department of Transportation has taken numerous steps in the past few years to strengthen regulations regarding oil-by-rail shipments, many public safety experts and environmentalists worry that the current regulations do not go far enough in preventing spills and protecting communities that neighbor rail routes.

The new rules proposed Wednesday would increase the number of trains that would be required to develop comprehensive response plans for potential spills. Comprehensive plans cover worst-case spill scenarios, but current regulations only require comprehensive plans from tank carscontaining over 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, of oil. According to the Department of Transportation, the current approximate carrying capacity for tank cars hauling crude oil is about 30,000 gallons, which means that the vast majority of rail cars hauling crude oil are not required to develop worst-case-scenario plans in the event of a derailment, accident, or spill. The new ruleswould expand the scope of trains required to come up with response plans for a worst-case-scenario spill, requiring any train carrying 20 or more loaded tank cars of petroleum oil in a continuous block, or any train car carrying 35 tank cars of petroleum oil throughout the entire train, to develop comprehensive oil spill response plans.

The new rules would also expand the type of information that rail companies are required to disclose with state officials. Currently, railroad companies are only required tell state officials if they are sending 1,000,000 gallons or more of Bakken crude in a single train through that state. Under the new rules, railroads would be required to notify state officials about all shipments of flammable liquids, not just Bakken crude (though Bakken crude is thought to be more flammablethan other types of oil, combusting at low temperatures due to its high concentrations of natural gas). The rules would also include new testing methods that oil and rail companies could use to determine the volatility of their crude.

Also on Wednesday, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkeley (D) introduced a bill aimed at improving oil-by-rail safety. The bill, dubbed the Mandate Oil Spill Inspections and Emergency Rules (MOSIER) Act, would require the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate major oil derailments, and give them an additional $2 million in funding to make this a reality (the NTSBhas blamed limited staff for its inability to quickly investigate some derailments, like the one that occurred in Mosier).

The act would also allow the Federal Railroad Administration to declare moratoriums on oil train routes following derailments. In the wake of the Mosier derailment, both Wyden and Merkeleywrote a letter to the FRA asking for a moratorium on oil trains throughout the state. That request, however, was ignored, and Union Pacific resumed shipping oil through the state less than three weeks after the accident.

Lastly, the act would require the Department of Transportation to set a standard for the volatility of crude oil that can be shipped via rail. The Obama administration had previously balked at setting such a requirement, deferring to state regulators in North Dakota to set a standard for volatility. The North Dakota standard, however, was met with skepticism from environmentalists, who noted that the standards called for a level of volatility well above what was seen in oil-by-rail disasters like the Lac-Mégantic explosion that killed 47 in Quebec in 2013.

Both the Department of Transportation’s new rules and the MOSIER Act were met with cautious praise from environmental groups, with Lauren Goldberg — staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, a northwest organization that has been fighting the influx of oil trains through Oregon and Washington — calling the rules “a step in the right direction.”

Goldberg was quick to note, however, that the rules could still fall short of protecting communities. The Mosier derailment, which eventually sent some 42,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River, was caused by a sheared track screw that had been cleared by a Union Pacific safety inspection just weeks before the incident — these new rules would do little to prevent that kind of accident from occurring.

“Piling another band aid on the problem doesn’t address the root cause: Volatile oil is unsafe on railroads passing through communities and along critical water resources, like the Columbia River,” Goldberg said. “Nothing short of a ban on mega oil trains can solve this.”