Oil-Spill Regulations for Trains Irk Industry, Environmentalists

With oil spills caused by derailed trains more common in recent years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed new regulations for safer transport of flammable liquids. Nobody's happy, though: The oil and railroad industries say they go too far, but environmentalists say they don't go far enough.

Oil-train spills were unheard of just a few years ago. This year, corresponding with the U.S. oil industry’s growth, they’re spiking—despite a decline in train crashes overall.

As a result, the Obama administration wants to get things back on track. But its proposal for new safety regulations is getting no love from either environmentalists or the oil industry. More details:

About the problem: With the increase in shipments of the allegedly highly explosive crude oil that’s drilled from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation, accidents involving oil tankers have become more frequent in recent months. By February alone, five such accidents had occurred in 2014, according to Time—equaling the total number for last year. Some of these accidents have had devastating consequences: One tanker derailment in Quebec last year killed nearly four dozen people. (The crash led Canada to pursue its own oil tanker regulations.) Outdated rail tank cars, particularly the DOT-111 models,  have been involved in some of the crashes.

A push for improvements: To mitigate the dangers of shipping flammable liquids, the U.S. Department of Transportation last week proposed regulations that would phase out older rail cars as carriers of crude oil by mid-2017 [PDF]. Among other things, the new rules would require correct classification of mined liquids and gases; braking controls and reduced travel speeds for trains carrying high-hazard flammable materials; and new standards for tank cars built after October 1, 2015. Older DOT-111 cars would have to be retrofitted to comply with new design standards or they could no longer be used to carry flammable liquids such as Bakken crude oil. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx emphasized that the proposed rules would amount to a “new world order” for rail transport of oil. “More crude oil is being shipped by rail than ever before,” Foxx said, according to Politico. “If America is going to be a world leader in producing energy, our job at this department is to ensure that we’re also a world leader in safely transporting it.”

The response: Reaction has been mixed, with environmental groups saying that DOT-111 tankers should be banned immediately. “The rules proposed today by the Department of Transportation acknowledge the dangerous risks inherent to transporting oil by rail but do far too little, too late, and the process takes far too long,” Sierra Club Director Michael Brune told The Hill. Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute objected to the focus on Bakken crude oil, which Foxx and others have classified as more flammable than other types. “The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks,” API President Jack Gerard said in a statement.

According to Bloomberg, API and the Association of American Railroads jointly offered their own proposal for improving tank-car designs. The two groups are pushing for a longer phase-out period for the DOT-111s and no requirement for either lower train speeds or mandatory stabilization for volatile kinds of crude.

The scene from a deadly oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, last year. (iStock Editorial/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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