Quick Action Needed on Federal Rules to Reduce Oil Train Dangers

On Aug. 1, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published proposals in the Federal Register to address a recent string of accidents involving the shipment of crude oil by rail. Since 2010, there have been 10 major rail accidents in North Dakota, Alabama, and Virginia resulting in fireballs, major damage to the environment and, in the case of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec accident, the deaths of 47 people and destruction of a significant portion of a town.

In a notice of proposed rulemaking, the two Transportation Department agencies proposed changes to the operation and tank car design requirements for carrying crude oil and ethanol on the rails. The proposal would require the phase-out of DOT-111 tank cars – those most widely associated with the recent derailments – for crude shipments within two years and would implement new, more stringent tank car standards starting in October 2015. It would impose speed limits, require improved braking and route assessments, and require railroads to provide essential information to state emergency response committees regarding large oil train shipments.

The other proposal, an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, would require more carriers shipping crude oil to complete comprehensive oil spill response plans to ensure adequate response to worst-case scenario derailments.

The proposals are intended to address the increase in oil train derailments that have accompanied the huge increase in transportation by rail of oil extracted by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The number of rail cars carrying crude oil jumped from about 6,000 in 2007 to over 400,000 in 2013, with fracked oil from the Bakken Formation of North Dakota and Montana accounting for the majority of this huge increase.

A PHMSA/FRA study released at the same time as the proposed rules found that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota is more volatile and flammable than other lighter crude oil, increasing the potential risk of an explosion should an accident occur.

The proposals respond in part to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations issued in January urging the Federal Railroad Commission to work with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to require routing trains carrying hazardous, flammable liquids to avoid populated areas. NTSB also called on the agencies to require companies to prepare worst-case accident response plans and improve tank car components to reduce the risk of rupture.

In response to a “Call to Action” from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, railroad companies subsequently agreed to a voluntary program of reducing train speeds in cities, more frequent track inspections, and improved emergency response planning. In May, PHMSA and FRA issued a safety advisory urging railroads to not use the outdated DOT-111 tank cars for transporting Bakken crude oil, and the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to provide the information to state emergency planning committees that is now included in the proposed rule.

Since almost 800,000 barrels of crude oil were transported by rail each day in 2013, and the amount of crude oil transported by rail primarily from the Bakken shale region is on track to exceed that amount in 2014, it is imperative that these essential improvements to our nation’s rail transportation are finalized and adopted without delay. Comments on the proposed rule can be submitted electronically and are due no later than Sept. 30.

For an in-depth review of concerns regarding potential oil train accidents, specifically focused on the Pacific Northwest, view this short documentary prepared by Vice News.

back to Blog