Department of Transportation

Wed, 2014-08-13 11:15Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Rail CEOs to Investors: "Bomb Trains" Safe At Almost Any Speed

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) recently said it would proceed with plans to increase speeds for oil-by-rail unit trains in Devil’s Lake, N.D. to 60 MPH from 30 MPH, despite opposition from local officials

BNSF’s announcement came merely a week after the Obama Administration announced its proposed regulations for trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin.  

The rail industry’s position on speed limits for “bomb trains” is simple: they continuously claim velocity has nothing to do with oil-by-rail accidents or safety.

For example, Big Rail — as revealed by DeSmogBlog — lobbied against all proposed oil train speed reductions in its dozen or so private meetings at the Obama White House before the unveiling of the proposed oil-by-rail regulations. 

Recent statements by rail industry CEOs during investor calls put the heads of many companies on record opposing oil-by-rail speed limits for the first time.

Wed, 2014-07-23 10:51Justin Mikulka
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Obama Administration Releases Weak Proposed Rules On Crude By Rail After Industry Lobbying Blitz

The Department of Transportation released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking today for the transportation of crude oil and ethanol by rail. With the release of the proposed new regulations, a public comment period now begins before the rules will be finalized.

The proposed rules offer a wide variety of options for the public to comment on with the weakest proposals essentially being the status quo, as is the case for the rail tank car recommendations.

These proposed regulations have been under review for the past several months at the White House’s Office of Information of Regulatory Affairs where industry lobbyists have been hard at work to weaken and delay the regulations. An initial review of the proposal makes it clear their efforts have paid off and first reactions from advocates for increased safety reflect this.

Matt Krogh, of ForestEthics, the group which recently released a website where people can check if they are within the blast zone for the oil trains, released a statement telling the Obama administration to “go back to the drawing board and put public safety first.”

“Today the Obama administration announced weak new standards for high-hazard flammable trains that give the oil industry a license to threaten the safety of millions of Americans and leave communities and emergency responders holding the bag.

The administration seems to have carefully calculated and managed the inconvenience of these rules to the oil industry, but they’ve severely underestimated the threat of these trains to the American public.”

A review of the proposal reveals many things in the industry’s favor.

Mon, 2014-07-21 08:13Justin Mikulka
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Exclusive: E-mails Reveal Feds and Rail Companies Pressured States to Keep Oil-by-Rail Information Secret

Documents released to DeSmogBlog by the Washington State Military Department reveal that both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and rail companies attempted to pressure states including Washington to keep information about Bakken crude oil trains from the public.

As previously reported on DeSmogBlog, while rail companies have been asserting that information about the frequency and routes of Bakken oil trains was “security sensitive,” the Federal Railroad Administration and the Transportation Security Administration were saying the opposite.

However, that didn’t stop the Department of Transportation from pressuring states like Washington only to release information on a “need to know” basis. A document provided to the states by the department argues against the public’s right to know:

This data is intended for those persons with a need-to-know; that is, first responders at the state and local level, as well other appropriate emergency response planners. DOT expects the SERCs to treat this data as confidential, providing it only to those with a need-to-know, and with the understanding that recipients of the data will continue to treat it as confidential.

The Department of Transportation went on to explain why it thought it was “appropriate” to keep the oil train information from the public.

Wed, 2014-07-09 10:38Justin Mikulka
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Fox Guarding Henhouse: Oil-By-Rail Standards Led by American Petroleum Institute

How did it get missed for the last ten years?”

That was the question Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), posed to a panel of industry representatives back in April about how the rail industry had missed the fact that Bakken oil is more explosive than traditional crude oil.

How do we move to an environment where commodities are classified in the right containers from the get go and not just put in until we figure out that there’s a problem,” Hersman asked during the two-day forum on transportation of crude oil and ethanol. “Is there a process for that?”

The first panelist to respond was Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of environmental and hazardous materials for the Association of American Railroads (AAR). His response was telling.

We’ve know about this long before Lac-Megantic and that is why we initiated the tank car committee activity and passed CPC-1232 in 2011,” Fronczak replied, “To ask why the standards are the way they are, you’d have to ask DOT that.”

So, now as the new oil-by-rail safety regulations have been sent from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, it seems like a good time to review Hersman’s questions.

How did we miss this? Is there a process to properly classify commodities for the right container before they are ever shipped? 

Mon, 2014-07-07 13:39Steve Horn
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Industry Data Show Oil-By-Rail in North America at Record Levels

On July 3, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) released June 2014 data showing oil-by-rail and petroleum products at-large are moving at record levels throughout North America

The release of the data comes on the heels of the ongoing oil-by-rail nationwide week of action launched by environmental groups.

For the 26th week of 2014 (the half year point) in the U.S., 18.5% more tank cars were on the tracks carrying petroleum and/or petroleum products than last year, a total of 15,894 cars.

Examined on a year-to-date basis, 7.0% more of those same tank cars were on the tracks in the U.S. this year than last, totaling 380,961 cars to date.

Table Credit: Association of American Railroads 

Across the border in Canada, the same trend lines exist: for the 26th week of 2014, 6.9% more cars moved petroleum and/or petroleum products by rail than in the 26th week of 2013.

Looked at in terms of year-to-date compared to 2013, that totals a 7.7% increase in tank cars moving the commodity by rail. 

Table Credit: Association of American Railroads

Bomb trains,” as some critics call them, move oil obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin to terminals, holding facilities and markets both in the U.S. and Canada.

Hence the upsurge in unit cars carrying petroleum and/or petroleum products both north and south of the border.

Looked at through the lens of North America, 14.6% more tank cars carried petroleum and/or petroleum products during the 26th week of 2014 compared to the same time in 2013.

And 7.0% more of those tank cars have moved petroleum and/or petroleum products to market so far this year as compared to last year. 

Table Credit: Association of American Railroads

Wed, 2014-07-02 10:38Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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For Oil-By-Rail, a Battle Between “Right to Know” and “Need to Know”

Lac Megantic train explosion

Since the first major oil-by-rail explosion occurred on July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, citizens in communities across the U.S. have risen up when they've learned their communities are destinations for volatile oil obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin. 

As the old adage goes, ignorance is bliss. It's also one of the keys to how massive oil-by-rail infrastructure was built in just a few short years — the public simply didn't know about it. 

Often, oil companies are only required to get state-level air quality permits to open a new oil-by-rail facility.

Terry Wechsler, an environmental attorney in Washington, recently explained to Reuters why there was no opposition to the first three oil-by-rail facilities in the area.

“There was no opposition to the other three proposals only because we weren't aware they were in formal permitting,” he said

The same thing unfolded in Albany, N.Y., where there is an ongoing battle over expansion of the major oil-by-rail facility set to process tar sands crude sent by rail from Alberta. The initial permits for the oil rail transfer facility, which would allow two companies to bring in billions of gallons of oil a year, were approved with no public comment

Sun, 2014-06-15 07:00Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Meeting Logs: Obama White House Quietly Coddling Big Oil on “Bomb Trains” Regulations

When Richard Revesz, Dean Emeritus of New York University Law School, introduced Howard Shelanski at his only public appearance so far during his tenure as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Revesz described Shelanski as, “from our perspective, close to the most important official in the federal government.”

OIRA has recently reared its head in a big way because it is currently reviewing the newly-proposed oil-by-rail safety regulations rolled out by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).   

During his presentation at NYU, Shelanski spoke at length about how OIRA must use “cost-benefit analysis” with regards to regulations, stating, “Cost-benefit analysis is an essential tool for regulatory policy.”

But during his confirmation hearings, Shelanski made sure to state his position on how cost-benefit analysis should be used in practice. Shelanski let corporate interests know he was well aware of their position on the cost of regulations and what they stood to lose from stringent regulations. 

Regulatory objectives should be achieved at no higher cost than is absolutely necessary,” Shelanski said at the hearing.

Fri, 2014-03-28 06:26Justin Mikulka
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Feds Weaken New Oil-By-Rail Safety Regulations Days After Announcing Them

Oil train in Montana

Nine days after announcing new regulations designed to improve oil-by-rail safety, the Department of Transportation quietly weakened the rules for testing rail cars and exempted shippers of bitumen from having to meet the new regulations.

The department had been under pressure from industry since announcing new regulations in response to a round of testing on shipments of Bakken crude oil that found companies had classified crudes as less hazardous than they were in 11 of 18 rail cars.

The tanker cars that exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July of 2013 were also carrying Bakken crude that was misclassified.  The result of these errors is that first responders can arrive at a scene and expect a crude oil fire and instead find a “river of napalm”, as they did in Lac-Megantic.

Thu, 2011-07-07 13:38Carol Linnitt
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Federal Agency Captured By Gas and Pipeline Industry

The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is responsible for overseeing, monitoring and maintaining 2.3 million miles of pipeline. A recent investigation conducted by Hearst Newspapers discovered that the federal agency is heavily influenced by the gas and pipeline industry which exercises a significant amount of control over the regulatory body’s decisions.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is working to limit industry influence in federal safety studies of the country’s onshore pipeline network. LaHood’s decision is directed against a 2002 Bush-era rule requiring the federal agency to receive at least half of its funding for safety research from outside sources. The Hearst investigation found that, since the ruling, the PHMSA’s research is largely managed according to industry interests.

The investigation revealed that out of 174 safety studies conducted in the last decade by the federal PHMSA, two-thirds were funded by pipeline operators or other industry-controlled groups. Of the total studies, 89 were funded by a combination of 5 industry organizations that provide research and 3 that provide lobbying expertise.

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