Voters in the city of Spokane will be facing Proposition 2, which would assess fines on the shippers of oil and coal if their train loads didn’t meet certain safety requirements.
The citizens’ group behind the initiative says it’s about safety. The concern with the increase in oil trains is legitimate, but the inclusion of coal is puzzling. The advocates say the requirement to cover cars would lessen the chances of spilled coal causing derailments. Perhaps, but there are many other loads, such as chlorine and other chemicals, that pose a greater danger upon derailment, and they aren’t included in the initiative.
A debate about oil trains, however, is warranted.
Advancements in hydraulic fracturing led to an oil boom in North Dakota, with massive yields in the Bakken Shale formations in North Dakota and Eastern Montana. Up until 2010, almost all crude was transported by pipeline, but the Bakken boom created a need to move it by trains.
From 2008 to 2014, there was a 5,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by trains, or up to 750,000 barrels a day (shipments have since lessened with the drop in oil prices). And though 99 percent of shipments arrived safely, some that derailed created frightening explosions and fires.
In the case of the derailment in Lac Megantic, Quebec, 47 people died and much of the downtown was wiped out by fire. On June 3, 2016, a Union Pacific train derailed in the Columbia River Gorge, near Mosier, Oregon, causing a large fire.
These incidents have spurred the federal government to play catch-up with safety regulations. Plus, the volatility of Bakken crude itself has become a flashpoint. Both sides of the debate have used 2014 congressional testimony from a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration official to bolster their positions. Both sides have their favorite studies.
But what matters is that if Bakken crude is deemed inordinately volatile, there aren’t sufficient federal guidelines to address that. Volatility is a factor in moving crude through pipelines. If it comes to pretreating the crude to make it safer for rail transport, which is what the initiative calls for, so be it.
Two crucial questions for Spokane voters are: Should individual cities impose restrictions on rail transport, and what would it mean for interstate commerce if they could? A patchwork of rules and regulations across the country would throttle the economy. Critics of Prop. 2 make a compelling case that it runs afoul of the Interstate Commerce Act, and there is a long list of court cases that demonstrate the supremacy of federal law over local ordinances.
However, Prop. 2 critics are less persuasive when they downplay the risks. The federal government should be actively scrutinizing Bakken crude and issuing regulations as needed.
Ultimately this is a federal matter, so voters should turn down Prop. 2. Plus, the inclusion of coal undermines the case. But that doesn’t mean community leaders and citizens shouldn’t keep up the pressure. Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray are sponsors of the Crude By Rail Safety Act of 2015, calling for national standards on cargo volatility and other safety measures. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers should hop aboard and lobby House leadership.
Communities along rail lines should be protected, but it must be done the right way.
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