Congresswoman Declares Pipeline and Oil-by-Rail Regulatory System "Fundamentally Broken"

DeSmogBlog | April 23, 2015 | Column by Justin Mikulka

The system is fundamentally broken.”

Image credit: Hot Dogs, Talking Points via Shutterstock.

Those were the words of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) during an April 14th hearing on oil-by-rail and pipeline safety.

For anyone expecting the soon to be released oil-by-rail regulations to make any meaningful improvements to safety, it would be wise to review the full comments made by Rep. Speier.

It has been more than four years since a gas pipeline exploded in Speier’s district in San Bruno, California resulting in eight deaths, huge fires and destruction of a neighborhood. In her testimony she recounted how the state regulators were clearly in league with industry prior to this accident. And in the time since she has come to find that federal regulators, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), “does not have the teeth—or the will—to enforce pipeline safety in this country.”

PHMSA is the agency also in charge of the new oil-by-rail regulations as it is a division of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). One thing is certain — the new regulations won’t address the volatility of Bakken oil. The White House has already decided that the regulations will not deal with this issue and instead they left it up to North Dakota to deal with it.

North Dakota passed regulations that went into effect April 1 that require the oil to be “conditioned” prior to shipment by rail to address the volatility. However, as has been documented on DeSmogBlog before, conditioning doesn’t remove the volatile and explosive natural gas liquids from the oil. That requires a process known as stabilization.

So with no rules in place to require the oil to be stabilized, future train accidents involving Bakken oil will very likely be similar to the seven that have occurred since July 2013. Huge fires, exploding tank cars and the now all too familiar Bakken mushroom cloud of flame.

There have been seven accidents and it has been the same in all of them. But the White House has decided that the regulations don’t need to address this issue. 

Recently the Department of Energy (DOE) got involved in the discussion about Bakken crude with the release of a document called Literature Survey of Crude Oil Properties Relevant to Handling and Fire Safety in Transport.   

It is interesting that the DOE is commissioning reports on this topic since the department has no regulatory oversight of oil-by-rail. The report received little attention upon its release, although it was immediately touted by the American Petroleum Institute (API) as proving that the characteristics of crude oil had nothing to do with the fires occurring in the Bakken train accidents.

The API press release stated, “The Department of Energy found no data showing correlation between crude oil properties and the likelihood or severity of a fire caused by a derailment.”

During the recent hearing, this new DOE report was cited twice by two separate members of Congress. They both used the report to question a statement recently made by Federal Railroad Administration acting administrator Sarah Feinbergregarding the need for the oil companies to reduce the vapor pressure and volatility of oil for rail transport. Reducing the vapor pressure and volatility would require stabilization.

Early in the hearing, Rep. Lou Barletta (D-PA) read a question that contained the exact same description of the report’s conclusion as the API press release.

You [Feinberg] have recently called on the energy industry to quote ‘do more to control the volatility of its cargo.’ You may have seen a recent report from the Department of Energy where the agency found no data showing correlation between crude oil properties and the likelihood or severity of a fire caused by a derailment.”

Rep. Barletta received $106,540 from big rail in the last election cycle.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) read the exact same statement. It appeared even Feinberg was a bit surprised at being asked the exact same question by two different congressmen as she responded, “I’m happy to take that question again.”

Rep. Babin received $37,550 from the oil industry in the last election cycle with $7,500 coming from Exxon Mobil.

So, while the API wasn’t at this hearing, they had two members of Congress directly reading prepared questions that echoed their press release on the DOE report word for word.

Watch video of the two identical questions asked at the hearing:

The first important thing to note about the “no data” talking point is that it is true. The report did not find data on this because that isn’t what the report was designed to do. The report reviewed three field sampling studies on the characteristics of Bakken crude oil. None of these studies looked at “correlation between crude oil properties and the likelihood or severity of a fire caused by a derailment.” 

It is easy to say you found “no data” when you know there is none in your source material to begin with.

Perhaps the most insidious part of this is that no one at the hearing called them on their blatant mischaracterization of the report and their ignorance of the science of Bakken oil and volatility. 

In a recent article about the volatility of oil in Al Jazeera, an actual petroleum engineer clearly stated what is widely known in the oil and rail industries but is “debated” by the API and congress and regulators to avoid having to regulate the Bakken crude.

The notion that this requires significant research and development is a bunch of BS,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Houston. “The science behind this has been revealed over 80 years ago, and developing a simple spreadsheet to calculate risk based on composition and vapor pressure is trivial. This can be done today.”

A bunch of BS. The oil industry, DOEFRA and PHMSA want us to believe that the properties of oil aren’t currently understood. And as outrageous as that assertion is, multiple hearings and reports have been conducted on the matter. And many more will occur before anything is done.

The DOE report outlines all of the further research the department will be doing on this issue over the next couple of years.

And as previously reported on DeSmogBlog, the exact same thing is happening with tar sands oil and dilbit. Hearings, studies, reports. With many of the studies and reports being directly funded by the American Petroleum Institute and its members. All dragging on years after major incidents like the Kalamazoo River dilbit spill.

In her testimony, Rep. Speier didn’t hold back on her feelings about the failures of the regulatory system.


PHMSA is not only a toothless tiger, but one that has overdosed on Quaaludes and is passed out on the job.

But the reality is that PHMSA is just a small piece of the much larger puzzle that includes the Department of Energy, the White House, the Federal Railroad Administration and first and foremost, the American Petroleum Institute and their supporters at all levels.

A couple of days after the hearing, FRA acting administrator Sarah Feinberg appeared on Rachel Maddow’s show to discuss this problem and said the following regarding stabilization of oil.

The science is still out. The verdict is still out on what the best way is to treat this product before placing it into transport.”

Watch FRA acting administrator Sarah Feinberg in this Maddow clip:

But the science isn’t still out. Even in the DOE report, it clearly states that the oil needs to be stabilized to reduce the vapor pressure and that conditioning the oil, as they currently require in North Dakota, does not accomplish this.

To add to the absurdity of this situation, Feinberg admitted to Maddow that the oil industry stabilizes the oil before it is transported in pipelines or on ships. Apparently the science is crystal clear in those cases. 

So while Feinberg got beat up at the hearing by congressmen and their API talking points, there was Feinberg on Maddow’s show spouting other API talking points.

Rep. Speier is probably wrong. The system isn’t fundamentally broken. This would be true if the system was designed to keep the public safe, but it isn’t. The system is designed to keep corporate profits safe so the reality is that the system is working as designed. And the bomb trains continue to roll. 

http://www.desmogblog.com/2015/04/23/congresswoman-declares-pipeline-and-oil-rail-regulatory-system-fundamentally-broken

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PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.