Obama Admin Does Oil Industry Bidding on Oil Trains

Daily Kos | March 15, 2015 | Diary by Justin Mikulka

In July of 2013, an oil train full of Bakken oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec resulting in a massive fire in downtown Lac-Megantic and the deaths of 47 people. After the initial horror of that accident wore off and people started looking for answers to how this could have happened, an idea began to take hold. Something unique happened in Lac-Megantic. There was a runaway train and when it left the tracks in downtown, it must have hit some propane tanks or some other highly explosive material because the explosions that happened in that accident couldn't have come from crude oil because we were told, "crude oil doesn't explode."

I live in Albany, NY which is where approximately 25% of the Bakken oil that is produced arrives by trains, just like the one that exploded in Lac-Megantic. As local people began to become very concerned about these "bomb trains" coming to our city, they began asking questions. The local emergency response manager had a meeting with the oil companies and after the meeting he reassured the public that these trains were "safer than your car in your driveway."

And then a few more of the trains crashed and exploded. And it became clear to anyone with basic common sense that if four trains full of Bakken oil crashed and all four exploded in massive fires that burned for days, then perhaps it was the Bakken oil that was exploding. The "mystery explosive theory" that arose after Lac-Megantic could be put to rest.

However, the American Petroleum Institute did not agree. They said they had studies and that Bakken oil was no different than any other oils. The CEO of the American Petroleum Institute stated their position last year:

“It is essential to separate fact from fiction as we work to enhance the safe transportation of crude oil. Multiple studies have now debunked the idea that Bakken crude is meaningfully different than other crudes.”

And the API was at the table for any discussion about the subject. National Transportation Safety Board hearings, meetings with regulators, any congressional hearing. They are omnipresent.

In one congressional hearing on the subject where congressman who work for the oil industry were working hard to dispel the idea that Bakken oil was explosive, one of the government experts made a comment that while there was some evidence of Bakken being more volatile and flammable than other oils based on lab tests, what we really needed was some tests to see how it performed in the real world. Apparently crashing 4 mile long trains full of it in four completely different scenarios which all resulted in explosions doesn't count as the real world. Watching this unfold as regulators and politicians delay and try to confuse the issue can be infuriating.

But despite the industry attempts to ignore the facts and dispute the science, we now have a pretty good idea what the problem is with Bakken crude. It comes out of the ground with natural gas liquids as part of the mix. The liquids are volatile and ignite easily. And then once the fire starts in one of these train accidents, the liquids in the tanks that haven't ruptured heat up and at a certain point what results is a "thermal tear" where the tank car rips open and that is most likely what happens right before those signature "mushroom cloud of fire"photos that follow every accident.

We also know that the industry is very capable of taking those natural gas liquids out of the Bakken oil through a process known as "stabilization" which results in a "stable" crude oil. But the oil industry doesn't want to do this because it would cost money. Perhaps a few billion to build the infrastructure in North Dakota. I've been writing about stabilization for the past year and how politicians in North Dakota successfully managed to avoid requiring it be done to the oil. More recently even the NY Times wrote an editorial calling for stabilization. After the last round of explosions, New York Senator Charles Schumer joined many other politicianscalling for stabilization.

But the only agency who could do something about it is the one that is currently responsible for completing the long delayed new oil-by-rail regulations. The actual agency is the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) which is a part of the Department of Transportation (DOT). When the draft of the new proposed regulations was released last July one thing that was missing was any proposal to require the oil companies to remove the explosive natural gas liquids from the oil prior to shipment. Whie the regulations might require slight better rail cars and some other safety measures, they would still be bomb trains due to the contents of the train.

Last week a report by Reuters revealed why the regulations didn't contain anything about stabilizing the oil. Apparently DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx went to the White House with his concerns about the dangerous oil. Which makes sense. Who would want there name on regulations that allowed for the bomb trains to continue to roll knowing that it is just a matter of time before there is another fatal accident?

Foxx brought his concerns about the unresolved issue of dangerous gas, commonly measured as vapor pressure, and his agency's limited power to curtail the problem to President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough. The administration decided to just let the existing oil train safety plan take root.

The existing plan does not address this issue. According to the article, the White House punted the issue to the North Dakota politicians.

"The Department of Transportation supported North Dakota on treatment of crude oil in the field," a White House official told Reuters

Which anyone who understands the control the oil industry has over ND politics knows that basically means, "let the oil companies decide what they want to do." And the resulting rule that came out of North Dakota was a joke. The volatility of the crude oil is typically measured as Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP). The higher the RVP, the more volatile and explosive.

The Bakken oil that was in the train in Lac-Megantic had an RVP of 9psi. The North Dakota regulations require the RVP to be below 13.7 psi. So, the regulations do nothing to eliminate the danger.

An important thing to understand is that the components of the Bakken oil that make it more volatile actually make it more valuable to refiners.

Having watched the story play out over the last couple of years and sat through many hearings, read all the regulations and countless documents, filed freedom of information requests, etc. it is clear to see that the American Petroleum Institute and the American Association of Railroads are essentially running the show. However, until Patrick Rucker and Reuters were able to get White House officials to reveal  the direct involvement of Obama's chief of staff to direct PHMSA regulators to not deal with the explosive oil, there have been few moments that lay it out so clearly.

I've tried to find more proof. I filed a freedom of information request with PHMSA last June asking for all of their communications with the American Petroleum Institute about the testing and classification of Bakken crude oil. Apparently PHMSA and the API were meeting weekly on this issue. On PHMSA's website they have the following statement.

"Where possible, your FOIA request will be processed within 20 business days unless the information is voluminous in size or if the information is being obtained from regional offices and requires more time. If this occurs you may be contacted and informed that an extension of time is needed to fill your request."

The last time I got someone from PHMSA on the phone about the delay was in January. I was told the person working on it was "on vacation."

But, really, I doubt there is anything I will find in the information that will reveal anything we don't already know. The first Bakken train exploded in July 2013. The last exploded in March in Galena, Illinois. During that time there has been nothing done to change the way the oil and rail companies move Bakken crude. Sure, the last few trains were using the "safer" CPC-1232 cars instead of the older DOT-111s. Every crash with the safer cars has resulted in explosions and fires that burn for days. But, as far as addressing the real issues, nothing has been done.

And the Obama administration is the one who has to take the responsibility for this. While PHMSA and DOT write the regulations, the final step in the process involves the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). A largely under the radar officebut one that is very popular with lobbyists from the oil and rail industries when it comes to this issue. Because they can get meetings with the OIRA regulators that are closed to the media and public  where they can lobby against new regulations. And they get a lot of them. There were a series of these meetings last year prior to the release of the proposed regulations. And they have started up again as the final version of the regulations is now in the hands of OIRA.

The day after the latest Bakken oil train exploded in Galena, the American Association of Railroads and representatives from most of the major rail industry players were in a meeting with OIRA. Whlie we don't know what they talked about the power point presentation from the meeting was made available. Essentially the industry was there to argue against having toadd modern braking systemsto the oil trains and against any speed limits for these trains.

A couple of days before that meeting Exxon and a group of oil industry members met with OIRA as well. There are no notes from that meeting so we can only guess at what was discussed.

Whatever watered down regulations are put in place will be phased in over several years. So the trains of old rail cars full of unstabilized Bakken crude will be allowed to be on the rails for a couple of years after the new regulations are released. The industry is even fighting this and they want a much longer time to be allowed to use these dangerous old cars. In recent hearings on the subject congressional leaders have argued to give the industry more time to make any changes. In one classic exchange, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) outlined how he wanted this to play out.

“I just want to make sure that we are all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry and we want to work together on improving that industry.”

Four more oil trains have crashed and exploded since Denham made that statement.

It remains to be seen what the actual regulations will require. And hopefully the industry gets lucky and has a few very safe years. But the predictions are that there will be 10 accidents a year of oil and ethanol trains. And those accidents will involved oil trains of unsafe rail cars full of highly volatile oils. Things that are known dangers that could be easily fixed if regulators, Congress and the White House weren't doing the bidding of the oil and rail industries.

On Friday, Sarah Feinberg, acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), stated “We are running out of things that I think we can ask for the railroads to do, and there have to be other industries that have skin in the game. There also has to be attention placed on the product actually going into the railcar.

That article continues, "Feinberg said the administration is considering further steps to reduce oil’s explosiveness before its loaded into tank cars, though the draft rule under review is silent on the issue."

The proposed rules are silent on this issue. Because the White House said they had to be. Now, after the fact, the head of the FRA admits that the explosive oil is the real problem. And that the administration is considering "further steps to reduce oil’s explosiveness."  Perhaps that is what Exxon and the other oil industry representatives were talking about in the recent meeting with OIRA. The one that has no meetings notes or agenda available.

Last year the National Transportation Safety Board held a two day hearing on the oil by rail issue. After the two day hearing NTSB Chair Deborah made the following statement.

"That is a tombstone mentality. We know the steps that will prevent or mitigate these accidents. What is missing is the will to require people to do so."

And that is how regulations work in America. Industry goes full speed ahead doing whatever they want until enough people die that regulators and politicians have no choice but to act. And so far there have been no Americans killed by oil trains. So, until that happens, don't expect anything to change. 


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Obama Admin Does Oil Industry Bidding on Oil Trains
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
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.