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DOE Investigating Crude Volatility; New Rail Car Standards Said Close

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) currently is conducting research and analysis into ways to control the volatility of highly flammable crude oil and expects to have the project completed by this fall, according to testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing Wednesday.

DOE is investigating whether crude should be treated to remove dissolved gases or whether or ways could be used to stabilize it, said Timothy Butters, Acting Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in response to questions from the House panel.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-IL, noting recent recent derailments in Illinois and West Virginia, asked why the more volatile crude transported from the Bakken Shale could not be stabilized in the same way crude from the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas is stabilized before being loaded into tank cars.

Butters said a study on crude volatility is underway and he expected to see results of that study published by the fall.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is not responsible for the crude product, but it is working to finalize new rail car rules, Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg testified. That immediately brought criticism by Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart, R-FL, who said that with the slow pace of the rulemaking, it is just not “doable” for the railroads to meet the December 2015 deadline for their implementation. It is not too late to change the deadline since the rule currently is in its last review, he said.

Feinberg pushed back on extending the deadline and said the railroads individually could obtain provisional authority if they couldn’t meet the it, but also show they were making progress. Since the rules have been under consideration for four years, the industry already has begun to build stronger tank cars. The agency does not want to extend the deadline since it would remove pressure on the railroads, and actual implementation could be extended for another three to four years.

“Four-plus years is simply unacceptable,” Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-WV, said, citing the accident in his state and other recent incidents said to involve allegedly newer, safer tank cars. The rules appear to be already out-of-date. “Are we rubber stamping car standards that aren’t good enough?”

Feinberg could not say how that problem might be addressed. She said all across the administration officials were aware of the recent accidents with the new design cars, and there should be some conclusion in a couple weeks. “I am confident the rules will be very strong.”

Also on Capitol Hill Wednesday, four Democratic senators introduced more stringent safety legislation relating to crude oil transport by rail, calling for the immediate ban of the use of older rail tanker cars (see related story). 

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