Senate Dems seek stronger oil train safety rules

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Senate Democrats have proposed a bill to set stronger safety rules for trains carrying oil, including regulating the content of the oil itself.

Sens. Maria CantwellMaria CantwellWeek ahead: Wait drags on for energy talks The Hill's 12:30 Report Democrats seize spotlight with sit-in on guns MORE (D-Wash.) and Tammy BaldwinTammy BaldwinOvernight Finance: Wall Street awaits Brexit result | Clinton touts biz support | New threat to Puerto Rico bill? | Dodd, Frank hit back Dem hopeful that Congress will eliminate tax break for investment fund managers Congress should stop government hacking and protect the Fourth Amendment MORE (D-Wis.) said the most critical problem with the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) ongoing regulatory effort on oil trains is that it does not confront the problem of the volatility of oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region.

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The volatility and content of explosive gases in the oil makes it much more likely that trains would explode if they crash or derail, the senators said.

“Needless to say, the issue of volatility is a very big issue for us,” Cantwell, top Democrat in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told reporters Wednesday.

She blamed oil volatility for the 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47, and said such explosions frequently destroy everything in a half-mile radius. The number of oil train disasters has increased sharply in recent years along with domestic oil production, and they are often accompanied by explosions.

“Our legislation requires that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulate the volatility of oil inside these tank cars,” Cantwell said. “It ensures that oil volatility is monitored and regulated.”

PHMSA, which is part of DOT, would first have to issue interim standards for the content of gases like butane, propane, methane and ethane in the oil that’s in trains, Cantwell said. It would later have to make long-term standards.

“As more and more volatile crude oil moves through Wisconsin and through our country via rail, it’s critical that appropriate safety measures are in place to reduce the risks of having accidents,” Baldwin told reporters.

Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are also co-sponsoring the proposal.

PHMSA is planning in May to issue new oil train standards that focus on the tank cars themselves, through measures like the thickness of shells, braking improvements and protection of vulnerable areas.

But the Senate Democrats faulted federal officials for not considering volatility in their regulations.

“I believe that with DOT, PHMSA has the ability to do this,” Cantwell said. “They should set a standard on volatility, they are currently not in the process of doing a rulemaking on it.”

The bill from Cantwell and Baldwin also proposes a quick phaseout old tank cars for oil use and sets new requirements for track infrastructure.

Public Citizen welcomed the legislation.

“We can’t let oil and railroad companies make their own rules,” Tyson Slocum, director of the group’s energy program, said in a statement. “Sen. Cantwell’s bill wouldn’t let them, and instead would — rightly — put public safety ahead of corporate profits.”