In early June, a Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed outside the small Oregon town of Mosier. It was a relatively calm day in the otherwise windy Columbia River Gorge, which prevented the accident from forming a fireball that could have decimated the town. Still, at least four cars caught fire and spilled 42,000 gallons of crude into the Columbia River, forcing the evacuation of several homes and a school near the accident.
The derailment was far from the first accident involving oil trains — 2015 was the most expensive year on record for oil train explosions, with damage costing the United States $29.7 million. Three major derailments and explosions occurred that year alone, including one in West Virginia that forced the evacuation of 1,000 residents.
In May of 2015, the Department of Transportation enacted new safety rules aimed at preventing oil trains, which had seen a 25-fold increase in the amount of oil shipped by rail between 2010 and 2014, from derailing and endangering communities alongside the tracks.
In Mosier, however, those safety regulations weren’t enough. The initial findings from the investigation into the accident revealed that broken screws along the track most likely caused the derailment. Those same screws, however, had been cleared by Union Pacific’s own safety inspection just weeks before the derailment.
Shortly after the accident, local and state politicians began calling for a moratorium on oil shipments through Oregon, until safety regulations could be amended to ensure rail safety. In a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration, the Oregon Department of Transportation asked that oil train traffic be suspended “until the underlying cause of the bolt failures is understood and a means of detecting this defect is developed.”
Despite calls for a moratorium, however, Union Pacific restarted shipments of oil by rail less than three weeks after the derailment.
Ensuring that oil trains face rigorous safety standards, however, might be easier said than done. Even though oil train derailments, like the one in Mosier, most directly impact local communities, those communities — or even state officials — lack the authority to decide whether or not to allow oil-by-rail shipments through their communities. Safety regulations for oil by rail has to come from federal authorities: through the Department of Transportation.
In crafting federal regulations, officials are up against two extremely powerful entities with reason to oppose stringent — and sometimes expensive — regulations: the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads.
On Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency charged with promoting safety in the transportation, is hosting a forum on oil-by-rail safety, billed as a discussion on what comes next for oil train safety. The majority of the invited participants are from the oil or rail industry. Out of 21 participating organizations, just four deal with public safety — the rest represent the interests of industry.
Why do we need to regulate oil-by-rail?
In 2010, the United States shipped about 1 million barrels of oil by rail. Less than five years later, that amount had ballooned to around 25 million, as the United States rushed to keep up with increased oil production due to the boom in North Dakota. But that increase in traffic has also led to an increase in accidents — in 2014, more oil trains spilled more than any other recorded year. In 2015, that record was broken.
In 2013, the dangers associated with oil trains gained high profile attention due to the Lac-Mégantic disaster, when a train carrying 72 cars of crude oil derailed in the heart of the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people. Crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation is especially volatile, and can ignite at temperatures of just 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
What do current regulations look like?
Following the Lac-Mégantic disaster and a number of high-profile accidents, federal regulators began looking at ways to overhaul safety regulations for oil shipments by rail. In 2015, the Department of Transportation, alongside regulators from Canada, unveiled a new suite of regulations aimed at lessening the chance of catastrophic accidents and derailments. The regulations included requirements like a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour for oil trains, updated braking systems, and phasing in newer tank cars to replace older models which are more likely to breach.
“The truth is, 99.9 percent of these shipments reached their destination safely,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said during a press conference announcing the rules. “The accidents involving crude and ethanol that have occurred, though, have shown us that 99.9 percent isn’t enough. We have to strive for perfection.”
The cornerstone of the new regulations is replacing old train cars — the kind involved in the Lac-Mégantic derailment — with new train cars within three years. Train cars built after 2011 would need to be replaced by 2020. All rail cars would need to be outfitted with electronically controlled pneumatic (E.C.P.) brakes by 2021 — something that the Department of Transportation argued would make trains safer, but the railroad industry said would be expensive and would not necessarily prevent derailments.
In response to industry criticism of the E.C.P. brakes, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration Sarah Feinberg told the New York Times, “The mission of the FRA is safety and not focusing on what is convenient or inexpensive or provides the most cost savings for the rail industry.”
How might industry influence oil-by-rail regulations?
But how true is Feinberg’s statement? The regulations earned criticism from both the rail and oil industries over concern that the regulations would be too costly. But it garnered even more criticism from environmentalists and public safety experts, who accused industry lobbying campaigns of getting in the way of keeping Americans safe.
“They have enormous lobbying power so that they don’t even do the most important safety things,” Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant, told ThinkProgress. He highlighted two main actions — namely shipping crude oil around major urban centers, and reducing the volatility of the crude being shipped — as conspicuously absent from current regulations. These steps, Millar said, are among the easiest ways to keep oil train derailments from turning into catastrophes like the Lac-Mégantic disaster — but strong opposition from the rail and oil industries has kept those regulations pretty much off the table.
In 2014, North Dakota regulators issued rules requiring oil producers to reduce the volatility of crude shipped by rail. The oil industry balked at the requirements, calling them unnecessary and without scientific basis, despite investigations showing that Bakken crude is an especially volatile form of crude. But even those regulations might be relatively toothless — the requirements call for a crude that would be just as volatile as the oil that caused the Lac-Mégantic explosion.
According to a 2015 Reuters report, the Obama administration had considered making volatility-reduction standards part of the federal oil-by-rail regulations. Instead they decided to let regulators in North Dakota set the standards. But regulating the oil industry is politically difficult for North Dakotans — the oil industry wields an enormous amount of power in the state, and the state itself has been a major beneficiary of the industry’s success, collecting some $4 billion in oil taxes between July 2011 and June 2013, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
As for re-routing trains to avoid major cities, the railroad industry has long been opposed to the idea, citing expense and existing infrastructure, despite the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations. That makes experts like Millar nervous, since a derailment that takes place in the middle of a densely-populated, urban area could lead to much larger loss of life than a derailment that occurs in a more rural area.
Chicago, for instance, is a major hub for freight traffic, and, by extension, oil train traffic. Chicago Magazine estimated that some 40 trains, each carrying three million gallons of crude oil, travel through the Chicago area weekly, meaning that more than 17 million gallons of crude oil pass through the city daily.
To lessen the threat of major explosions in urban areas, the Department of Transportation requires oil trains to travel at a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour in certain high-risk areas, but federal officials have said that even 40 miles per hour is too fast. During the Federal Rail Safety Forum in 2014, Federal Rail Administration official Karl Alexy stated that at “speeds of 30 to 40 mph, you cannot build a tank car robust enough to withstand puncture in unit train derailments,” meaning that even train cars traveling at the required 40 miles per hour through high-risk areas could derail, puncture, and explode.
The 40 miles per hour requirement, however, doesn’t come out of nowhere. Before the Department of Transportation mandated it in its updated regulations, it was a voluntary measure proposed by the Association of American Railroads.
Are safe oil trains even possible?
Even with a slew of regulations and safety inspections, oil trains have shown the propensity to derail, which raises the question: can oil by rail shipments ever be safe?
The data show that, as far as transporting oil and gas, rail leads to more accidents than options like pipelines. But pipelines aren’t necessarily a safe answer either, because when pipelines spill or rupture, the environmental impact is often much worse than with train derailments. And since both ultimately ship fossil fuel that will be burned and release carbon dioxide, both oil trains and pipelines contribute to a larger environmental disaster — global climate change.
“Crude oil trains are the shove in your face of the climate change issue,” Millar said. “It’s like saying, ‘We’re going to bring this right through your community and you can’t stop it.’”