Senators Try To Stop The Coming Oil Train Wreck
Spearheaded by the Senators from Washington State, legislation just introduced in the United States Senate will finally address the rash of crude oil train wrecks and explosions that have skyrocketed over the last two years in parallel with the steep rise in the amount of crude oil transported by rail (Tri-City Herald).
Oil production is at an all-time high in America, great for our economy and energy independence, but bad for the people and places that lie along the shipping routes.
Just since February, there have been four fiery derailments of crude oil trains in North America (dot111) and many more simple spills.
More shale crude oil is being shipped by rail than ever before – every minute, shipments of more than two million gallons of crude are traveling distances of over a thousand miles in unit trains of more than a hundred tank cars (PHMSA.gov).
U.S. railroads delivered 7 million barrels of crude in 2008, 46 million in 2011, 163 million in 2012, and 262 million in 2013, almost as much as that anticipated by the Keystone XL Pipeline alone.
Amid a North American energy boom, our pipelines are at capacity and crude oil shipping on rail is dramatically increasing. The trains are getting bigger and towing more and more tanker cars. From 1975 to 2012, trains were short and spills were rare and small, with about half of those years having no spills above a few gallons (EarthJustice.org).
Then came 2013, in which more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents than was spilled in the previous thirty-seven years. The North Dakota shale oil boom has averaged over a million barrels per day and two-thirds of that is being shipped by rail (North Dakota Pipeline Authority).
Crude is a nasty material, very destructive when it spills into the environment, and very toxic when it contacts humans or animals. It’s not even useful for energy, or anything else, until it’s chemically processed, or refined, into suitable products like naphtha, gasoline, heating oil, kerosene, asphaltics, mineral spirits, natural gas liquids, and a host of others.
But every crude oil has different properties, such as sulfur content (sweet to sour) or density (light to heavy), and requires a specific chemical processing facility to handle it (Permian Basin Oil&Gas). Different crudes produce different amounts and types of products, sometimes leading to a glut in one or more of them, like too much natural gas liquids that drops their price dramatically, or not enough heating oil that raises its price.
Thus, the push for more rail transport and pipelines to get it to the refineries along the Gulf Coast than can handle it.
Ensuring that these crude shipments are safe is the responsibility of the United States Department of Transportation, specifically the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
Unfortunately, the shipments aren’t really that safe. We don’t have the correct train cars to carry this unusual freight. The United States now has 37,000 tank cars with thin-walls that puncture easily after which the vapors can cause massive explosions.
And the returning empty trains are not quite empty. They have enough oil remaining in them to produce highly volatile vapors that make them even more prone to explosions than the full cars.
A clear example of this danger came on July 6, 2013, when a train carrying 72 tank cars, and over 2,000,000 gallons of Bakken oil shale crude from the Williston Basin of North Dakota, derailed in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Much of the town was destroyed and forty-seven people were killed.
This disaster brought the problem of rail transport of crude oil to the forefront of the news and of the State and Federal legislative bodies, and brought calls for safety reforms in the rail industry.
PHMSA undertook a series of unannounced inspections, testing, and analysis of the crude being transported (PHMSA.gov). While PHMSA found that Bakken crude is correctly classified chemically under transportation guidelines, the crude does have a higher gas content, higher vapor pressure, lower flash point and lower boiling point, so it has a higher degree of volatility than most other crudes in the United States. These properties cause increased ignitability and flammability.
PHMSA now requires extensive testing of crude for shipping, but the real problem remains – most of our tank cars are not safe to transport this stuff at all and should be taken out of service.
But that may change. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA CA -1.46%) introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015.
It’s no coincidence that the first two Senators listed are from Washington State. Trains hauling this type of flammable crude pass through our state every day, right through population centers totaling over a million people (Cantwell.Senate).And the number of oil trains will double next year.
This is strange for WA State because it’s the least carbon emitting state in the union and has already satisfied any and all carbon goals one could reasonably think up for any other state. And the state is poised to go even further. So increased oil and coal shipments across its length has the people of Washington State a bit concerned.
The rail standards set by the proposed legislation would require thermal protection, full-height head shields, shells more than half an inch thick, pressure relief valves and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.
The Senators’ legislation would also authorize $40 million for training programs and grants to communities to update emergency response and notification plans.
According to Cantwell, “Firefighters responding to derailments have said they could do little more than stand a half-mile back and let the fires burn” (Tri-City Herald).
Rail carriers would be required to develop comprehensive emergency response plans for large accidents involving fire or explosions, provide information on shipments to state and local officials along routes — including what is shipped and its level of volatility — and to work with federal and local officials on their response plans.
“We want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect our communities and give first responders the tools they need,” Cantwell said.
It’s certainly time for some decent regulations on this increasing risk.
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