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California Outlines Safety Steps for Expected Crude Rail Increase

Anticipating an increase in the amount of oil imports coming by rail into the state, California on Tuesday issued an interagency report with recommendations to beef up oversight of crude rail transport.

The recommendations are the result of six months of work by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), California Energy Commission (CEC) and seven other state agencies, driven by estimates that crude oil imports by rail will increase from 1% of total California oil imports in 2013 to 25% of imports by 2016.

The federal government maintains primary authority over railroad safety, but California has responsibility of enforcing the federal requirements. The authors also noted that the National Transportation Safety Board has found "numerous deficiencies" in national rail safety regulations.

"While the federal actions taken to date are significant, they do not go far enough to address the risks of increased oil by rail transport," the report concluded. "The state should press both the federal government and railroad industry to take additional safety measures."

The action comes after the federal government issued warnings on rail crude transportation following a string of serious derailments in the United States and Canada during the past 18 months (see Shale DailyMay 7).

Twelve principal recommendations are outlined in a 20-page report by the CPUC, which oversees state and federal safety requirements for freight railroads and other rail-related operations. The CPUC employs a team of Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)-certified field inspectors. The 12 recommendations include:

  • Increasing the number of rail inspectors;
  • Improving emergency preparedness and response programs;
  • Improving identifying information on crude tank cars;
  • Accelerating the implementation of accident prevention technology;
  • Updating incident-reporting requirements;
  • Ensuring compliance with the rail industry's voluntary agreement; and
  • Ensuring state agencies have adequate data.

The five other recommendations involve requests to be made of the railroads and/or the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), along with developing an interactive oil-by-rail map of movements in the state.

Authored by the state Interagency Rail Safety Working Group, the report is supposed to better prepare state and local emergency responders for a "dramatic increase" in rail oil shipments. Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown included a budget request for increased funds to improve the crude rail emergency response capabilities.

"The CPUC is committed to pursuing and addressing safety concerns in the industries we regulate," said President Michael Peevey. "While we hope that increased crude oil by rail does not pose a threat to California's public safety, or environment, we want to have the boots on the ground to make sure risks are identified and managed."

The report described California as being on "the cusp of dramatic changes" regarding oil transportation, noting that just two years ago, 70% of the supplies imported to the state's refineries came through marine terminals, and about 1 million bbl, or 0.3%, came by rail. Last year that increased to 6.3 million bbl, or about 1%.

"Many experts, including the CEC, project that this number could increase by up to 150 million bbl, or 25% of total imports, by 2016," the report noted. "These trends parallel what has been a sharp increase in oil by rail shipments nationally, especially in response to increase in production of oil from the Bakken Shale formation."

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