If you’re wondering why oil shipped by rail is suddenly a significant issue, consider this estimate from the Association of American Railroads: In 2008, there were 9,500 carloads of crude in the United States. Last year, there were 400,000 carloads. Furthermore, much of this new crude is more combustible, so the accidents are more dangerous.
Hazardous loads are traveling through the Inland Northwest with greater frequency, and there isn’t anything local governments can do about it. So federal oversight is critical.
On Friday, the U.S. Transportation Department announced an accord with railroads that would slow trains through major cities, increase track inspections and enhance emergency preparedness. But none of that is mandated, and there isn’t definitive oversight to ensure that companies follow through on their commitments.
The feds are working separately with the oil industry on safeguards and have yet to reach an agreement. But if that result is also voluntary, then it won’t bring much comfort.
Granted, the challenges brought by the recent boom in domestic drilling are new, but that’s all the more reason to slow down and set the regulatory throttle correctly. The Federal Railroad Administration says it will conduct regular inspections and publicly admonish railroads that aren’t following through, but it cannot issue fines or take punitive action.
In the past five years, at least 10 trains hauling oil have derailed, causing significant spills. The deadliest accident killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. A fiery, two-train collision near Casselton, N.D., caused the evacuation of that town in December.
Part of the problem is that the crude coming from the prolific Bakken fields of North Dakota is much more combustible than crude from other fields. A Wall Street Journal analysis found it to have higher vapor pressure than crude from the North Sea, Iraq, Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else. But, the newspaper reported, neither federal nor industry guidelines call for vapor-pressure testing. While the industry says it wants to cooperate, it has yet to turn over vapor-pressure data to the feds.
In addition, rail cars that carry this volatile crude weren’t designed for it. Tesoro, owner of a refinery at Anacortes, says it has started switching to safer cars, but there is no regulatory leverage to make sure all companies use safer fleets.
We appreciate the steps the rail and oil industries have taken in anticipation of government action. It’s a start. But federal regulators shouldn’t head for a siding once voluntary agreements are reached. State and local governments and citizens across the country are counting on them to be vigilant.
The prospect of just one explosive derailment in a large city should be motivation enough. Better to anticipate than regret.