Senator wants tougher rules for volatile oil moved by rail

Posted on March 4, 2015  by Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Crude oil, Politics/Policy, Rail

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration should force oil companies to strip volatile gases from the crude they transport across the nation’s rail lines to lower the risk of a fiery disaster, Sen. Charles Schumer insisted Wednesday.

Coming requirements for more resilient tank cars, along with better braking systems for trains heaving hazardous material and more information for first responders are not enough to make the activity safer, Schumer said.

“We need all of those safety measures, but of course none of them is a panacea,” Schumer said in a conference call with reporters. “Because of the type of accident that this could be — God forbid — we need to do everything we can; we have to take an all-of-the-above approach to safeguarding the transport of hazardous chemicals.”

In a letter to two cabinet secretaries, Schumer asked the departments of energy and transportation to work together on a plan that would require oil companies to stabilize crude before shipping it by rail — similar to standards for crude loaded into pipelines and possibly going beyond new North Dakota mandates.

The stabilization process involves heating crude to remove flammable natural gas liquids and other volatile light ends. Schumer cast it as getting more tinder out of the tinder box.

“Any time you are transporting volatile chemicals, there is a risk of explosion,” Schumer said. “Things like safer tank cars, better braking and lower speeds all help, but when it comes to the crude one of the most powerful things we could do . . . would be setting a good standard for the stability of what’s actually inside the tank cars.”

North Dakota regulators last year imposed a requirement aimed at lowering the volatility of oil — with the goal of effectively capping its vapor pressure at 13.7 pounds per square inch.

That’s a higher threshold than most of the oil that was sampled by Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulators last year. It also exceeds the vapor pressure of the oil that exploded in Lac-Megantic Quebec two years ago.

Schumer questioned whether the North Dakota regulation goes far enough.

“We need the federal government to take a tough look,” Schumer said. “Given the oil industry’s influence in North Dakota, their standard may not be good enough. We’re going to ask (the feds) what is.”

Oil industry representatives have disputed the characterization that Bakken crude is more explosive than other crudes.

Read more: North Dakota crude no more dangerous, report finds

“Acting on assumptions rather than science is not the way to enhance safety,” said Brian Straessle, a spokesman with the American Petroleum Institute. “Multiple scientific studies by government and industry have shown Bakken crude does not present greater than normal transportation risks for flammable liquids.”

A white paper from the Federal Railroad Association also warned that vapor pressure may not be a meaningful indicator of the risk of explosion. “Using vapor pressure as a metric to identify potential hazards may not prove effective when considering real-world accident conditions involving tank cars loaded with flammable liquids,” the FRA paper said.

Volatility is not expected to be part of coming Transportation Department rules for heaving crude by rail, which focus on boosting the resiliency of the tank cars used to ship flammable liquids. The proposal unveiled last July would phase out old DOT-111 tank cars in favor of newer models built to enhanced standards, including 9/16-inch thick steel, electronically controlled pneumatic brakes and rollover protection.

The agency also proposed speed limits on high-hazard flammable trains that carry 20 or more tank carloads of flammable liquids, including crude and ethanol.

Read more: Transportation Department unveils proposed oil train rules

Even in the absence of a final rule — possible in May — oil shippers and railroads have made voluntary changes to tank cars produced since 2011.

Recent derailments involving oil trains have put a spotlight on the risks of the United States’ climbing crude-by-rail transport. Most recently, in February, oil tank cars built to the newer post-2011 industry standard left the tracks in West Virginia, resulting in an explosion that sent fireballs into the sky and destroyed one home.

Legislation approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Wednesday aims to boost the training of emergency personnel that could respond to rail accidents involving hazardous materials. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., would establish a panel with technical experts and representatives from federal agencies and the private sector to review training and resources for first responders to railroad hazmat incidents.

Read Schumer’s full letter here.

About Martinez Environmental Group

We are a community health and environmental group located in Martinez, CA.
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