Oil-by-rail rises once again as safety rules disappear

Both the U.S. and Canada are taking steps that ignore or undermine the lessons and regulatory measures to improve safety since the oil train explosions and spills of years past.

Image Credit: Justin Franz/Flathead Beacon

While a second oil-by-rail boom is well underway in North America, both the U.S. and Canada are taking steps that ignore or undermine the lessons and regulatory measures to improve safety since the oil train explosions and spills of years past.

Canadian oil-by-rail now is operating at record levels, which are predicted to double by 2019. Favorable economics have led to a recent rise in oil-by-rail movements in the U.S. as well, with more Bakken oil moving by train to East Coast refineries.

Meanwhile, in September the Trump administration finalized its rollback of a regulation requiring an updated braking system for oil trains, known as modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, in a highly questionable regulatory process detailed on DeSmog last year.

In North Dakota, the Department of Mineral Resources now plans to reverse a regulation which required even the minimal stabilization of oil transported by train, with “stabilization” referring to a process that removes some of the natural gas liquids that make Bakken oil so explosive. That move doesn’t bode well for avoiding earlier scenarios in which rail operators dubbed oil trains as “bomb trains.”

In September Canada committed to phasing out some of the unsafe older rail tank cars ahead of schedule, but a derailment earlier this year shows that this step is far from foolproof. On June 22, a train carrying Canadian oil that derailed in northwestern Iowa was using the newer DOT-117R tank cars, the same ones being phased in as the new standard. The derailment still resulted in the release of an estimated 230,000 gallons of tar sands oil into local floodwaters.

And while track defects are the leading cause of train derailments (which, of course, lead to fires, explosions, and spills), the Trump administration has hit pause on efforts to regulate rail wear, which makes unlikely the possibility of new rules on this issue while Trump is in office.

Regulator’s statement on modern braking systems inaccurate

On September 24, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the regulatory agency that oversees the transport of oil by rail, announced its final decision to undo the regulation requiring modern ECP braking systems for oil trains. But its statement explaining the rationale for the rollback was misleading.

First, however, it should be noted that the current head of PHMSA is Howard “Skip” Elliott, who retired from his position as a rail executive at CSX before taking the job as federal regulator of the industry he just left.

This line from the agency’s announcement gives the appearance that new research provided justification for the decision:

The updated RIA [Regulatory Impact Analysis] incorporated new findings from ECP brake testing conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration, which were reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences.”

However, as detailed on DeSmog, the entire process used to justify this regulatory reversal was deeply flawed. This was simply a case of the rail industry not wanting to pay for the safety that upgrading its fleet to ECP brakes would provide. It was not a decision based on “new findings” that somehow reversed the many years of research proving ECP brakes are superior to the current air brake system (which dates back to the 1860s).

All of this should come as no surprise. As DeSmog reported in 2015, shortly after PHMSA proposed these regulations, Mathew Rose, CEO of oil-by-rail giant BNSF, said that “this rule [ECP braking requirement] will have to be changed in the future.”

To review why the Trump administration’s repeal of an important oil train safety measure is a political, rather than evidence-based, decision, just turn to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), but under previous presidents.

As DeSmog reported, in 2006, Joseph Boardman, FRA administrator under George W. Bush, explained why updating trains with ECP brakes makes perfect sense: “ECP brakes are to trains what antilock brakes are to automobiles – they provide better control.” Boardman also is on the record saying that ECP braking “offers a quantum improvement in rail safety.”

In 2015, under Barack Obama’s administration – when the rail industry began its push to repeal the new ECP braking rule – Matt Lehner, FRA communications director at the time, told DeSmog:

ECP brakes are a proven technology that will reduce the number of train derailments and keep more tank cars on the track if a train does derail. Delaying the adoption of ECP brakes seriously jeopardizes the citizens and communities along our nation’s freight network.”

North Dakota’s safety rule that did almost nothing for safety

North Dakota’s move, which would undo a vapor pressure requirement for Bakken oil prior to rail transport, demonstrates how much sway the rail industry has in the state at this point.

This vapor pressure standard, nominally intended to stabilize volatile oil on trains, requires the transported oil to have a Reid Vapor Pressure lower than 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi). Higher vapor pressure in a rail tank car, like in an aerosol can, increases the likelihood of explosion if the unit is damaged or punctured during a derailment or crash.

However, as I wrote in 2014, North Dakota’s rule was essentially meaningless.

The majority of oil train accidents – including the one in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people – have involved oil with a vapor pressure lower than the North Dakota standard of 13.7 psi. Therefore, the state’s regulation did very little to improve safety for oil trains in the first place.

But now the rail industry is saying that oil vapor pressures usually only exceed 13.7 psi in the winter, and because of that, vapor pressure testing shouldn’t be required year round.

Yet the industry has always maintained that the volatility of Bakken oil was never a problem. In May 2014, The Wall Street Journal ran a story with the headline: “Bakken Shale Oil Safe for Rails, Industry Group Says.”

And while a half dozen state attorneys general and a coalition of environmental groups separately have called for a national standard for vapor pressure on oil trains, the Trump administration has done nothing on this issue.

What North Dakota is doing now won’t change oil train safety one way or the other. But, again, the move highlights the complete lack of industry consideration for stabilizing oil, a trend DeSmog has documented many times over the years.

As a result, the second oil-by-rail boom now ramping up will occur with the same void of safety rules as the first and with the same dangerously volatile oil – from Texas to North Dakota to Canada – filling the mile-long “bomb” trains crossing the continent.

Trust the Trump administration on this one point

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee is a vocal advocate for improving rail safety and earlier this year put the final nail in the coffin of what would have been the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal, proposed for Vancouver, Washington. When Inslee commented on the recent rollback of the ECP braking regulations for oil trains, he told Oregon Public Broadcasting:

One thing you can trust about this administration, they’re going to sell out your safety for special interests.”

Considering the string of fiery, explosive, and deadly incidents during the first oil-by-rail rush, North America should expect the same performance from the oil and rail industries the second time around.


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