Tuesday, May 5, 2015

New Oil Train Rules Do Not Go Far Enough

Over the last few years a spate of exploding oil trains in North America has prompted politicians in the US and Canada to introduce new rules designed to make rail transportation safer. We have seen many more derailments and explosions recently due to the 4,000 percent increase in oil shipments by rail between 2008 to 2014. It is a statistical certainty that derailments increase in proportion to the amount of oil shipped by rail.

The actual number of derailments and explosions have exceeded government predictions by 20 percent. A federal government report predicted an average of 10 oil train derailments each year and at a cost of four and a half billion dollars over the next 20 years. However, in the last year alone there have been 12 oil train derailments and in the past two years there have been almost two dozen such derailments.

In 2014 a group of Democratic senators set out to improve the safety of transporting oil by rail in the US. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act, which would direct the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to prevent the use of older, riskier types of tankers and set higher standards for tank cars (thicker shells, thermal protection and pressure relief valves). The legislation would also demand that companies have spill response plans and authorize more funding to deal with derailments (training first responders equipment and inspections).

In April 2014 Transport Canada presented oil train safety rules. On May 1, 2015 new American and Canadian regulations were announced to try to reduce the explosions associated with oil train derailments. New cars will need to be more puncture resistant and older cars will need to be retrofitted with protective shells and insulation to reduce punctures that cause explosions after derailment.

In the US oil trains will be fitted with better brakes. These enhanced “electronically controlled pneumatic” (ECP) brakes allow trains to safely come to sudden stops. Speeds will be limited to 50 mph, and 40 mph in urban areas. However it should be noted that many derailments and explosions have occurred at speeds far below the new speed limits. Route options and rail conditions will also be reviewed and that information must be shared with local officials.

Many have criticized the new rules for taking years to come into effect. In the US the DOT-111 which have been responsible for half of the oil train explosions will be around for another three years. The newer unjacketed CPC-1232 cars will be allowed to operate for another five years in the US. In Canada the situation is worse as these cars will be on the rails for the next decade.

Senator Cantwell, criticized the new rules saying they did not go far enough. “The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll,” she said. “It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars.”

Although some have suggested that the problem of exploding oil trains points to the need for more pipelines, this is a false choice as there is no safe way to transport fossil fuels.

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