NTSB pushes regulators to improve safety of crude oil trains

01/23/2014 2:03 PM

10/08/2014 11:38 AM

The National Transportation Safety Board called Thursday for federal regulators to take more aggressive steps to protect the public and the environment from oil spills and fires from trains.

The NTSB, an independent agency that makes recommendations but has no regulatory powers, asked the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to develop oil-spill response plans that account for the large volumes of crude oil now moving by rail.

It urged regulators to identify routes for such shipments that would avoid population centers and environmentally sensitive areas. It also said regulators should make sure that crude oil, especially from North Dakota’s Bakken region, was properly classified to reflect its higher level of hazard.

After intense fires following derailments in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota, regulators concluded that the Bakken crude, which is extracted from shale rock through hydraulic fracturing, is more volatile than conventional oils.

Railroad administration spokesman Kevin Thompson said the Department of Transportation agencies “agree that a wide-ranging approach is necessary to ensure the safe transport of crude oil. We have already taken action on these recommendations and many others.”

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada announced recommendations Thursday that were identical to those the NTSB issued. The two agencies noted the recent crude-oil train fires on both sides of the border, as well as several incidents involving ethanol.

A derailment in July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people. Derailments near Aliceville, Ala., and Casselton, N.D., in November and December, respectively, didn’t cause fatalities, but spilled about 1.1 million gallons of crude oil. According to an analysis of federal data, that’s more than all crude oil spills in rail incidents from 1975 to 2012.

“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

The NTSB stopped short of calling for a ban on transporting crude oil in tank cars long known to be vulnerable.

While the NTSB has cited the deficiencies of the DOT-111A tank car in numerous accident evaluations for decades, the minimally reinforced car accounts for perhaps two-thirds of the tank cars that transport Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to points across North America. Tens of thousands of such cars may need to be upgraded or phased out.

Separately Thursday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed his own set of improvements, including a hazardous materials fee on the producers and industrial consumers of crude oil that would help pay for upgrading rail infrastructure.

Chicago is the country’s busiest rail hub, and many of the crude oil trains bound from North Dakota to East Coast refineries pass through the city. A number of other mayors signed on to Emanuel’s proposal, including Sly James of Kansas City, Mo., another busy rail hub, and Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, where nearby refineries receive crude by train.

“As mayors, there is no greater responsibility than ensuring the safety of our residents,” Emanuel said in a statement.

Also Thursday, the head of the leading railroad industry group told a gathering of energy and financial leaders that both trains and pipelines would be needed to haul an expanding domestic production.

Many pipeline supporters have cited recent rail accidents in making their case for expanding pipeline capacity, but Edward Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said it wasn’t a simple choice between modes.

“Railroads and pipelines both transport crude oil safely and reliably, and each has a role to play enhancing our energy security and delivering energy to American families and business,” he said.

According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. production is expected to reach 8.5 million barrels a day this year, up from 5 million in 2008. North Dakota accounts for much of that increase, and owing to the lack of pipelines, rail moves the lion’s share of it.

“There is, and will be, plenty of crude for all modes to move,” Hamberger said.

 

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