U.S. Secretary of Energy Anthony Foxx testified last week that efforts to assure the safe transport of oil by rail are making progress. That’s encouraging, but federal and state regulators continue to play catch-up.
They better hurry.
The North Dakota/Montana oil fields now produce more than one million barrels of crude oil each day. Because pipeline capacity is limited, more than 75 percent of that oil is reaching refineries by train.
Oil-related rail traffic is already congesting the BNSF Railway Co. line through Spokane, and 11 proposed shipping terminals on the coast could add as many as 22 train trips per day in the unlikely event all were built. The volatility of Bakken crude and the potential for catastrophic spills or explosions has alarmed authorities across states on the northern tier, from Washington to Maine.
The states have no power to set safety regulations for railroads, but they do regulate the siting of terminals, prepare spill response plans and perform inspections of train control equipment. Washington has already completed the environmental assessments for several of the proposed coast terminals.
Foxx, meanwhile, has been marshaling federal agency and railroad industry resources. In January, regulators and private executives issued a “Call to Action” to address major safety issues: train routing and speed, better track sensors, compiling an emergency response resources list, and training.
Separately, Operation Safe Delivery, which has its own website, will undertake an especially urgent task: determining how shippers classify their crude. Bakken crude is unusually explosive and poses a major hazard to urban areas. At the least, methods of extracting some of the most volatile components should be identified.
All this requires money, and the dead-on-arrival Obama administration budget called for the creation of a $40 million Safe Transportation of Energy Products Fund that would help fund federal and state safety initiatives.
Earlier this month, 16 senators signed a letter to the Appropriations Committee chaired by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., urging support for the fund, which would pay for more inspections, training and other measures to help prevent dangerous accidents.
In addition to funding Call to Action and the other initiatives, it would help with redesign of the thin-skinned DOT-111 tanks cars that too readily rupture in a derailment or other crash.
The railroad industry has been coming along on much of this. Hauling crude has become a bonanza, but another major explosion could halt the business in its tracks – if congestion does not accomplish that first. Some refiners who own their tanker fleets have pledged to replace old tankers as quickly as possible.
Relative to the number of trains moving all hazardous materials, accidents have been few. But pressure to get product to market is always a menace to safety, and the pressure is building.
Foxx and Congress need to make sure revenues do not get ahead of safety.