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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Oil Train Derailments Reaching Crisis Point

On February 13 a Norfolk Southern Railway train bound for New Jersey derailed in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. About 3,500 to 4,500 gallons of crude oil spilled, although miraculously it somehow didn’t leak into nearby water supplies. The Federal Railroad Administration announced that it will investigate the crash. The episode is merely the latest in a series of derailments and will raise pressure on federal regulators to issue new safety rules.

It is hard to imagine the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) not taking action soon as the problem has become too common to ignore. Between 1975 and 2010 only 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from rail tankers. But in 2013 alone, over 1.15 million gallons of oil spilled. That is because shipping oil by rail has skyrocketed from fewer than 10,000 carloads in 2009 to more than 400,000 in 2013.

Related Article: Iranian Oil Exports Increase After Nuclear Deal

With hundred-car trains rolling out from the Bakken in every direction – west to Washington state and Los Angeles, south to Gulf Coast refiners, north to Canada, and east to refineries in New Jersey – towns and cities are calling for greater scrutiny, but are powerless to take matters into their own hands as rail safety is regulated at the federal level.

The NTSB and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued joint recommendations on January 23 that call for treating crude oil like other toxic materials. These came on the heels of fiery crash in North Dakota in late December 2013. The recommendations call on rail companies to use reinforced rail cars, enhanced safety procedures, and alternative routes that avoid populated cities and towns. But, the recommendations are not binding – and action on things like rail design safety would need to come from another agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Regulators have said that they need more time to review rail designs and that they do not plan on publishing new rules within the next year. But, the issue isn’t going away. CSX, a major rail company, projects that oil shipped by rail will increase by 50% in 2014.

One of the major problems is that rail companies are using DOT-111 rail cars, which are older models used to carry agricultural products. These models have thinner walls that can puncture when they derail. This is particularly important because crude from the Bakken is more flammable than other types of oil. The Association of American Railroads issued new standards for manufacturers for cars built after 2011, which require thicker shells that are resistant to puncturing. But, the vast majority of railcars in use were constructed before this standard.

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The big question is whether or not PHMSA will require and accelerate the phase out of DOT-111 cars, making reinforced cars mandatory. Last summer, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote a letter to PHMSA, calling on them to do just that. PHMSA has thus far been unwilling to act, prompting North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple to press them for an interim standard until they come out with something more concrete in 2015. And Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both from Oregon, held a meeting with rail executives to push them on safety. Despite the pressure from a few lone politicians, the government has been slow to act and the rail industry has resisted any regulation, arguing it would cost more than $1 billion.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on rail safety on February 26, an indication that after multiple train derailments and explosions, the issue is finally getting greater attention on Capitol Hill.

By Nicholas Cunningham of Oilprice.com


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