Tank car group tries to hit the brakes on oil-by-rail rule

E&E Energy Wire | January 7, 2015 | Column by Blake Sobczak

A leading tank car group pressured federal transportation regulators to drop new braking requirements for cars bearing crude oil in a closed-door meeting last month, documents show.

During a Dec. 2 meeting in Washington, D.C., representatives from the Railway Supply Institute's Committee on Tank Cars warned Department of Transportation officials that they underestimated the cost to add advanced brakes to thousands of new and older cars.

RSI President Tom Simpson said the meeting was scheduled to settle a range of questions over an industry-funded review of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's pending crude-by-rail regulations.

U.S. regulators are weighing several designs to replace the decades-old DOT-111 tank car standard after a series of derailments and explosions. Environmentalists have sparred with industry groups over the extent and speed of repairs to the more than 72,000 tank cars now hauling ethanol and crude oil across North America.

In a draft cost-benefit analysis for the rule, PHMSA said the toughest proposed tank car design -- bearing a 9/16th-inch shell and electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes -- could save as much as $226 million over the next 20 years owing to averted catastrophes.

But oil and rail industry groups have since poked holes in that analysis, which predicts costly crude and ethanol train crashes happening every year in the absence of stronger tank cars.

Groups such as RSI have also questioned the benefit of installing ECP brakes on every train carrying flammable liquids.

"ECP brake systems are both technologically and operationally complex because they require investment, training, revised practices and significant in-service support from operating railroads," Simpson said in a Dec. 19 letter to PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration, following up on the meeting with those agencies earlier in the month.

The RSI pegged the cost of installing ECP brakes at $7,800 per modified tank car and $7,300 per new car, compared with PHMSA's estimates of $3,000 and $5,000, respectively.

Simpson suggested adding "ECP-capable configurations" to tank cars instead at a more modest cost, allowing tank car owners to decide whether to install them on their own time.

But PHMSA is under intense scrutiny from environmentalists and safety advocates who are eager to avoid a U.S. repeat of a July 6, 2013, oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people in a fiery explosion. By its own estimates, PHMSA found adding ECP brakes could reduce the risk of an accident by 36 percent compared with conventional brakes that take several seconds longer to kick in.

A spokesman for PHMSA said Friday that the agency is still reviewing thousands of comments on its tank car rule, which also addresses speed limits and other safety concerns. Crude-by-rail shipments have shot up to more than 400,000 annual carloads since the Lac-Mégantic disaster, averaging more than 1.1 million barrels per day last year based on preliminary estimates.

"The rule making is very comprehensive and involves interrelated issues that must be carefully assessed to ensure that the final rule is sensible and focuses on safety," PHMSA spokesman Joe Delcambre said in an emailed statement, adding that the agency expects to send a final rule to the White House "very soon" for review.

Twitter: @BlakeSobczak | Email: [email protected]


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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.