Oil is a global commodity, traversing vast distances by pipeline, tanker, and recently in the United States by rail car. A resurgence in domestic crude oil production due to technological advances in drilling has led to a transportation bottleneck between landlocked oil fields and coastal refineries and ports, and that bottleneck has opened up the door for more oil shipment via rail.
But increased shipment by rail has also led to an increase in accidents, and on Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation released long-awaited safety standards for train cars carrying oil and other flammable materials following a series of dangerous derailments.
The standards, which were criticized by the oil industry over costs and time frames as well as by environmental groups and lawmakers, who demanded even stricter reforms, aim to improve overall safety and prevent catastrophic accidents and explosions. They do so through a number of measures, including updated braking systems for trains, a new maximum speed of 50 miles per hour, new operational protocols such as routing procedures and information sharing, and better classification of materials. The 50 mph speed limit comes in addition to a recently introduced 40 mph limit for trains travelling through certain urban areas.
The final rule comes as pressure mounted to address the issue due to a series of deadly crashes over the last few years, including a July 2013 derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. So far in 2015 there have been five oil train explosions and spills in North America — four in the U.S. and one in Canada. While this represents only a minuscule fraction of the nearly 500,000 rail-car loads of flammable material last year — a figure up from 9,500 seven years ago — it just takes one incident to incite a disaster.
“The truth is, 99.9 percent of these shipments reached their destination safely,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Friday 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.”
Foxx presented the new safety standards alongside Canada’s Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt, since the regulations were coordinated with Canada. Raitt said that together the two countries had “developed a harmonized solution for North America’s tank car fleet.”
Many of the oil trains, which can total up to 120 cars, originate from the Bakken oil fields, located primarily in North Dakota but stretching into Montana and up towards the Canadian border. Total crude-by-rail in the U.S. and Canada averaged more than one million barrels of oil per day in 2014, up from 55,000 bpd in 2010, with the large majority of this oil coming from the Bakken region. Trains depart from these fields carrying oil to ports and refineries, such as those found along the Pacific Northwest coastline.
Senators from Oregon and Washington, states which have been bombarded by these trains and which have dealt with companies wanting to keep routes for oil trains secret, were unsatisfied with new safety standards.
In response to the new rules, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley released a statement saying the “rule includes meaningful steps on rail safety, but does not do enough, or move quickly enough to secure Oregon communities from the risks of flammable oil trains.”
They took specific issue with the fact that the rule does not expand on the amount of public information available on these train routes, saying “first responders need more information about dangerous materials moving through their communities.”
In fact, as Oregon Public Media reported, the new standards actually rescind a requirement that the DOT issued last year in which railroads were compelled to notify states regarding flammable crude shipments, providing information on volume and frequency. Instead, starting in 2016 railroads will only be required to provide states with contact information for officials with access to this information.
“Instead of providing first responders more details about oil shipments, railroads will simply be required to give our firefighters a phone number,” said Merkley and Wyden.
Senator Maria Cantwell, (D-WA), had even harsher words for the new rule, remarking that it is the equivalent of saying “let the oil trains roll.”
“It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars,” she said in a statement.
Merkley and Wyden are part of a group of senators from six states that last week proposed a special fee on railroad tank cars shipping oil, ethanol or other flammable liquids. The government charge, which would start at $175 and increase to $1,400 per car by 2018, would both incentivize upgrading to new railcars as well as raise money that could be used to clean up spills, relocate tracks away from population centers, and better equip first responders.
“The idea is to speed up the phase-out of older tank cars,” Wyden said. “It allows us to move in a much faster and more aggressive fashion to make oil by rail transportation safer.”
Environmental groups and lawmakers expressed concern over the extended timeline of the implementation of the new rules, which would phase out older rail cars, DOT-111s, by 2018 and require newer cars, known as CPC-1232s, to be retired or retrofitted by 2020. All cars built after October 2015 will adhere to DOT-117 standards, which require thicker shells, shields along the front and backs of the cars, increased thermal protections, and improved valve functions for releasing pressure or fluid.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer from New York, another state experiencing a major increase in oil by rail, said the DOT’s announcement gives railroads too much time to adapt.
“The good news is that the standards are predictable, but the bad news is that the phaseout time is too lenient,” Schumer said.
The rules will also require train cars to use an electronic braking system, which could cost around $9,665 per tank car to install. While industry leaders criticized the new braking system as being unhelpful in preventing derailments and overly financially burdensome, the overall pushback from the industry was likely muted by a general slowdown in oil shipments recently. With pipeline infrastructure severally lacking, fossil fuel companies were until recently very concerned that the new rail car regulations would curtail their ability to bring oil to the market. However, with plummeting oil prices impacting the rate of the industry’s growth, these same parties now have other issues to deal with.
“Oil producers have more to worry about than new rail regulations,” Cleo Zagrean, a transportation analyst with Macquarie Securities, recently told Reuters.