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Senate Energy, Commerce Chairmen Demand Oil Transport Investigation

A recent series of explosions and accidents involving crude oil trains "demands an investigation and review of our current safety practices and regulations," said a pair of powerful U.S. Senators. Thursday the pair called on the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Energy (DOE) "to quickly resolve issues with the transportation of crude oil."

In a letter sent to DOT Secretary Anthony Fox and DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, the senators -- John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Ron Wyden (D-OR), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- said the shale boom and resulting increase in the amount of crude oil being shipped on U.S. railroads make it "imperative that your departments understand and properly evaluate the safety of transporting crude oil by rail. The federal government must have a thorough understanding of the risks to communities near active oil train routes, as well as the current and future volumes of oil being transported by rail."

The lawmakers requested that DOT and DOE begin an investigation to:

  • Thoroughly understand the current and future volumes of crude oil that will be shipped on railroads;
  • Evaluate the crudes to understand whether they require special precautions and handling;
  • Evaluate and update safety requirements to ensure they adequately address the risks of carrying crude; and
  • Finalize a DOT rule implementing a rail risk reduction program that was signed into law in 2008.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently issued a safety alert on Bakken crude oil, warning emergency responders, the public and others that the light, sweet crude could be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil (see Shale Daily, Jan. 3). PHMSA's alert stemmed from preliminary inspections conducted after last month's derailment and the resulting explosion of several crude oil tank cars in Casselton, ND (see Shale Daily, Dec. 31, 2013), as well as derailments in Alabama and Quebec during the second half of 2013. The advisory was a follow-up to a PHMSA and Federal Railroad Administration joint safety advisory published Nov. 20.

With a push from the North Dakota congressional delegation, PHMSA has promised to release long-awaited new standards for railroad tank cars carrying crude oil in the next few weeks, industry officials in North Dakota said Thursday.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC), applauded the federal agency for accelerating the timetable for the release of the draft standards in the wake of a recent rash of rail accidents involving crude oil transportation.

"The PHMSA has sat on the enhanced safety standards for more than two years," Ness said. "We are pleased to find out these standards may finally be closer to being released so manufacturers can begin production of better, more secure rail cars."

Ness noted that North Dakota's Bakken light sweet crude oil is currently transported in DOT-111 tank cars, and the Association of American Railroads has developed standards that exceed the current federal requirements. The rail organization has been urging PHMSA to adopt those standards since March 2011.

The uncertainty regarding the future specifications and when they would be released has kept many manufacturers from making investments in the construction of new rail tank cars, according to NDPC.

With another rail car incident this week in Canada (see Daily GPI, Jan. 8), members of Congress newly returned from the holidays began this week putting pressure on PHMSA, as evidenced by the North Dakota congressional delegation urging prompt action in letters to Cynthia Quarterman, the head of the federal safety agency.

"We applaud our congressional delegation for putting pressure on regulators to move more quickly on approving these standards," said Ness.

Last year, Rockefeller and Wyden called on the Government Accountability Office to examine the impact of growing shale oil and gas development on the nation's rail and pipeline infrastructure (see Shale Daily, July 23, 2013). That request followed a deadly train derailment in Quebec and a December 2012 pipeline explosion in Sissonville, WV, that raised concerns about potential gaps in safety standards (see Shale Daily, July 9, 2013; Dec. 17, 2012).

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