Only 3 Bakken drillers helping with oil testing, DOT says

Environment & Energy News | April 10, 2014 | Column by Elana Schor

Three oil companies have shared test results from sampling of light crudes linked to explosive crude-by-rail incidents, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told senators yesterday, escalating his department's cold war with the industry over ensuring the safety of shale fuel shipments.

Foxx's criticism follows similar frustration from Department of Transportation lieutenants that oil companies active in the Bakken Shale play are not quickly sharing sampling data intended to illuminate why the light crude caused fiery devastation following last year's derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic.

"Given the questions about the volatility of Bakken crude oil, the more samples we have, the better we can evaluate" the need for new safety rules, Foxx told Senate Appropriations Committee members with jurisdiction over DOT's budget.

The three companies that have furnished their samples, when compared with the 170-plus operators currently producing in the Bakken, is "not a huge sample from us," Foxx said, adding that the pace of cooperation is hurting DOT's emergency "coordination with first responders."

When Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) on Tuesday joined DOT in pressing the oil industry for faster information sharing, American Petroleum Institute (API) spokesman Reid Porter reiterated the vocal denial his lobbying group issued last week (EnergyWire, March 31).

"Our industry is and has been sharing proprietary data with" DOT's hazardous materials arm, Porter said via email, pointing to a "third-party testing" operation also underway in North Dakota. "Finally, we are developing a new industry standard for testing and classifying crude oil, and [DOT] is part of that process as well."

The internecine drama over oil train safety increasingly pits railroads and oil producers against each other in a race to influence the course of DOT's future regulations on safety technology, tank car design and other issues.

Foxx's announcement yesterday that he would require two-man crews on trains carrying crude drew applause from API and jeers from railroads (Greenwire, April 9). Another front for the shippers-versus-producers battle could soon open if Congress heeds Foxx's suggestion for legislative assistance in requiring stronger spill response plans for oil trains.

"There are areas where" mandating better response planning for crude-by-rail would "need action by Congress," Foxx told senators.

Both oil companies and rail operators favor tightening federal standards for the so-called DOT-111 tank cars commonly used to ship oil, but whether to require retrofits to existing cars remains a flashpoint as Congress exerts more pressure on Foxx to finish that long-planned rule.

The DOT chief vowed that "we are not going to be waiting until 2015" to tighten tank car rules, as was previously suggested in agency planning documents, but he declined to provide any more details yesterday despite bipartisan concern from senators.

The "target date is as soon as possible" for finished regulations, Foxx said.

"That's a frustrating answer," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) replied.

Reporter Mike Lee contributed.

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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.