Oil and Rail Industries Still Fighting Oil Train Safety Measures 23 Years and Counting

DeSmogBlog.com  |  October 2, 2014  |  By Justin Mikulka

Oil train

On the final day of the public comment period for the new proposed oil-by-rail regulations, the oil industry came out swinging. At a press conference held by American Petroleum Institute (API) president Jack Gerard, Gerard said: “Overreacting creates more challenges than safety.”

One of the main “overreactions” Gerard and the API want to avoid is the discontinuation of the DOT-111 tank cars for transporting dangerous products like Bakken crude oil.

Based on that, you might think that banning DOT-111s is some kind of reactionary new idea, not something that’s been on the books for more than two decades.

Take this line from a 1991 National Transportation Safety Board document: “The inadequacy of the protection provided by DOT-111A tank cars for certain dangerous products has been evident for many years in accidents investigated by the Safety Board.” 

Yet, here’s the American Petroleum Institute, 23 years later arguing that halting the shipment of explosive Bakken crude oil in DOT-111 tank cars is “overreacting.”

The oil and rail industry also argued in their recent comments that their opposition to new regulations is because these rules could end up costing consumers more money.

Yes, that’s right, Big Oil wants you to know they are just looking out for the average person’s best interests when they oppose oil-by-rail safety measures.

And the mainstream business press was quick to spread the message that the industry was just looking out for the people. Businessweek reported the following: “The federal government’s proposed timeline for taking older rail tank cars out of crude oil service could cost consumers $45.2 billion, the American Petroleum Institute (API) said.”

However, that isn’t actually what the API said. What they did say is that they paid for a study by ICF International that said the proposed regulations could cost consumers $22.8 billion over ten years. They said this number could be as high as $45.2 billion if the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t approved, a point Businessweek failed to report.

Let’s break those numbers down a little bit. Based on the ICF International study, the new regulations could cost consumers $2.8 billion a year. There are more than 300 million people in the U.S. That makes the cost a little less than $10 per person per year.

The alternative is more accidents like the explosion in Lac-Megantic, Que., where 47 people died. The cost of that disaster — aside from the loss of 47 innocent lives — has been estimated as high as $2.7 billion. And since the oil and rail companies are refusing to pay for that, the taxpayers will be picking up the tab.

The American Association of Railroads and many of its customers have also been repeating the message that their opposition to the new regulations is due to concern for the public.

American Association of Railroads president Edward Hamberger explained the organization’s position: “Railroads have been at the forefront of advocating for safer tank car standards and we believe the public supports regulation that weighs both safety and the ability to move people and goods in a timely and efficient manner.”

While it is true that the railroads have been advocating for safer tank car standards, it is also true that they are strongly opposed to any new speed limits for the oil trains. They also have argued against improved braking systems and for the right to leave trains loaded with Bakken crude unattended on unsecure rail sidings, one of the main causes of the disaster at Lac-Megantic.

The public comment record includes many letters from rail customers that all include identical language citing concern that speed limits will increase consumer prices. Letters from companies including SierraPine Composite Solutions, Apache Nitrogen Solutions, Arkansas Steel Associates and others all contain the following statement:

The proposed nationwide speed restrictions will increase our transit times, which inherently drives up both inventory and transportation costs and ultimately results in higher consumer prices.

While the oil and rail industries are talking about how they are just looking out for the best interests of the public, the public is saying something else. On Tuesday a coalition of organizations submitted 145,000 comments that supported even stronger regulations than the ones being proposed.

According to ForestEthics, one of the organizations that has led the efforts to improve oil-by-rail safety, the main actions requested in the comments include an immediate ban of the DOT-111 tank cars for transporting crude oil, a faster phase out of other unsafe cars for crude oil shipment, lower speed limits and implementation of the most advanced braking systems.

The tragedy in Lac-Megantic looks like a worst case scenario except that if you look at where these trains run and the way they’re running these trains it’s possible that it’s not, and that things could get much worse,” Eddie Scher of ForestEthics told DeSmogBlog.

Earlier this year, Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board testified before congress about the use of DOT-111 tank cars for shipping crude oil stating that, “multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk.”

The oil and rail industries are now arguing that they feel this risk is acceptable for at least another four years. And they also think the risk of using the newer CPC-1232 tank cars, one of which ruptured and burst into flames in the Lynchburg, Va., rail accident that occurred at a speed of only 24 mph, is acceptable for at least another seven years.

When National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman resigned earlier this year she had the following exchange with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio while discussing the reality of new oil-by-rail safety measures being implemented.

Inskeep: But I'm asking you if you believe money is the issue. Have you had industry groups who have just said this is too expensive?

Hersman: Absolutely, follow the money — it all comes back to the money.

Which is why 23 years after the NTSB reported that DOT-111 cars were unsafe for transporting dangerous goods, the oil industry continues to use them to do just that.


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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.