U.S. Seeks New Rules for Rail Transport of Fuel

Wall Street Journal | July 23, 2014 | Column by Russell Gold

Thousands of Railroad Tank Cars that Carry Crude Will Be Phased Out Under Plan

The U.S. government wants to phase out thousands of railroad tank cars that carry crude oil and ethanol within two years, as part of proposed rules to upgrade safety for trains carrying flammable fuels.

Tens of thousands of these older DOT-111 tank cars will have to be replaced or retrofitted under the proposed rules, expected to be announced Wednesday morning. That is a faster deadline than Canada's three-year timeline to upgrade or phase out the railcars used to carry oil, ethanol and other hazardous liquids.

The federal government's proposals are sweeping and will change how flammable liquids are transported by rail in North America, but they aren't as stringent as some in the rail and energy industry feared. The Wall Street Journal has reviewed a description of the new requirements, which the U.S. Transportation Department is expected to detail on Wednesday.

Other new requirements proposed include a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit until sturdier tank cars can be built or existing railcars can be strengthened, as well as other rules that cover tank-car design, routing, brakes and testing of hazardous liquids.

Railroads, oil companies and railcar owners have been expecting new U.S. regulations meant to improve the safety of oil shipments in the wake of several fiery train accidents. A year ago, a train full of oil from North Dakota exploded in a rural Quebec town, killing 47 people.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken Shale isvolatile and contains large levels of combustible gases, and that the energy industry didn't install oil field equipment to stabilize the crude. The federal government is expected to report Wednesday morning that its own study had found Bakken oil is usually more volatile and flammable than other crude oils.

The rapidly growing amount of crude oil moving on the nation's railroads has sparked protest and concerns by local fire chiefs, who worry they aren't prepared for a catastrophic crash. In May, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the "safety of the nation's railroad system, and the people who live along rail corridors, is of paramount concern."

Starting last fall, the government has issued several temporary measures to improve safety. The proposed rules to be unveiled on Wednesday begin the process of permanently overhauling how the government regulates the transport of flammable fuel.

The rules are expected to affect trains that carry both crude oil and ethanol. It is become common for dedicated oil trains consisting of 100 or more railcars filled with crude to operate as a pipeline on wheels. But the proposed requirements would apply to any train with 20 or more tank cars of oil, ethanol or a comparable fuel to be categorized as a "high-hazard flammable train" and subject to the new rules.

The Transportation Department will ask for comment from industry and emergency-response officials on railcar design. The rules lay out several options, including improved brakes and thicker, 9/16th-inch steel walls on tank cars. The new design would cover all cars built after October 2015. Existing cars would need to be retrofitted, retired or used to carry less flammable liquids.

The proposed rules would also limit these high-hazard trains to 40 miles an hour, but leaves open whether this would only apply in certain urban areas. Trains with upgraded tank cars would be allowed to travel at 50 miles an hour.

The rules also call for the rail industry to design routes based on safety and security factors. They also require the development of a robust program of sampling flammable cargoes. Last year, officials with the Transportation Department found that oil cargoes were poorly tested and the flammability of North Dakota crude was often mischaracterized.

The railroads have been worried that slower speed limits could cause major gridlock, while oil companies have fretted that new tank car design rules might reduce the amount of oil that can ship in each car.

Oil shipments on trains across the U.S. have grown exponentially in the last few years to 1 million barrels a day, according to Energy Department data. Oil companies have discovered deposits of crude in places where there are few pipelines to move it, such as the Bakken formation of North Dakota.


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U.S. Seeks New Rules for Rail Transport of Fuel
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.