Ron Wyden proposes fee on 'dangerous' oil train cars

The Oregonian | April 30, 2015 | Column by Rob Davis

Want to ship oil in an outdated train car? That'll cost you.

Sen. Ron Wyden proposed a fee Thursday to accelerate the country's transition away from the older, less-safe tank cars involved in high-profile oil train accidents. (AP Photo/file)

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, proposed legislation Thursday meant to accelerate the transition away from outdated, less-safe tank cars hauling millions of gallons of crude oil around the country.

Wyden's proposal comes a day before U.S. and Canadian transportation officials will announce new specifications for train cars moving oil as well as a schedule to phase out old ones.

The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and five other Senate Democrats, would provide a financial incentive for the phase out to happen faster.

It proposes a fee starting at $175 per car on any shipment in old tankers, known as DOT-111s, which are widely used to move oil extracted in North Dakota to coastal refineries. The cars lack protective shields and are prone to ripping open in derailments. The fee would eventually rise to $1,400 per car by 2019.

"The goal here is to find tools that will get the dangerous tank cars off the rails as soon as possible," Wyden told The Oregonian/OregonLive. "Using a market-based approach provides a very effective tool to get unsafe cars off the tracks and safer cars on the tracks faster."

A few years ago, almost no oil moved by rail. But an ongoing boom in North Dakota has pushed an unprecedented amount of crude onto the country's railroads. The phenomenon has introduced risks of explosions and catastrophic spills into vast swaths of the Pacific Northwest. As many as 18 trains, each capable of carrying more than 1 million gallons of crude, now move along the Columbia River each week.

The fee Wyden proposed, which equals a half-cent per gallon, would increase annually, adding to escalating costs of shipping oil in the outdated cars. Railroad companies have levied similar surcharges to dissuade shippers from using the cars. BNSF Railway Co., the primary railroad serving North Dakota's oil industry, started charging an extra $1,000 per car Jan. 1.

Wyden's bill, the Hazardous Materials Rail Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2015, would raise an estimated $600 million over 10 years for improvements in oil train safety and accident response.

Wyden proposes to use some revenue to create a tax credit for companies that upgrade the other tank car model involved in several fiery oil train explosions. That car, the CPC-1232, is equipped with the protective shields missing in the DOT-111. Though stronger, those cars have still ruptured, spilled and exploded in numerous high-profile derailments.

The plan would also create a $100 million fund for states and communities to reroute railroad tracks carrying oil and other flammable liquids and hire extra rail safety inspectors. Another $200 million would fund oil spill cleanup and $45 million would be used to train first responders.

Wyden's plan has a wide sweep.

It requires a nationwide study of first responders' ability to handle major accidents along routes carrying oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials. Another in-depth study would also be carried out to determine how train length correlates to the severity of derailments. Trains frequently move more than 100 tank cars of oil at a time. It also calls for railroads to disclose more about the hazardous materials they move to local emergency responders in high-traffic areas.

Wyden, Oregon's senior senator, has frequently used his bully pulpit to advocate for increased disclosure about oil train routes, holding meetings on oil train safety around the state. 

Now, with the federal Department of Transportation ready to announce rules to improve tank car design and phase out old ones, Wyden said the timing was right to move.

"This bill is designed to be a complement to the rule and will help fill in the gaps by doing something the rule can't do," Wyden said. "This is a different approach and in my view will help us get real results more quickly."

-- Rob Davis

[email protected]



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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.