Lawmakers are calling for a comprehensive review of the nation’s rules that govern freight rail shipments of crude oil cargo following a string of rail accidents in recent months, and after receiving a warning from safety regulators that inaction could lead to a "major loss of life."
Sens. Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampOvernight Regulation: Senators call for 'cost-effective' regs | FCC chief unveils plans to roll back net neutrality Senators push 'cost-effective' reg reform Battle begins over Wall Street rules MORE (D-N.D.) and John HoevenJohn HoevenCongress nears deal on help for miners Overnight Energy: Lawmakers work toward deal on miners’ benefits Congress nears deal on help for miners MORE (R-N.D.) are pushing the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enact more stringent rules for oil-by-rail shipments, in the wake of a December derailment in their home state that spilled 400,000 gallons of crude oil.
As shale oil extraction from North Dakota to Texas has pushed U.S. output to the highest level since 1988, record volumes of crude are moving by train.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in concert with Canadian safety authorities, issued a dire warning on Thursday that without tougher regulations on railcars carrying crude oil there would likely be "a major loss of life, property damage, and environmental consequences" in future accidents.
Oil shipments by rail have been under-regulated, the safety board said, because the industry has only recently boomed.
Heitkamp and Hoeven responded to the warning by pressuring the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to finalize new standards for trains containing crude oil tankers.
The majority of tankers on U.S. railways are DOT-111s, which have not been upgraded for decades.
The FRA announced on Friday that it is publishing stricter rules that require more frequent inspection of freight rail tracks for possible defects that can lead to derailments.
The North Dakota senators said the regulatory changes are just the beginning.
"The recommendations NTSB put out on Thursday are already being implemented," Hoeven said. "I met with five out of the seven major railroad CEOs and am moving forward with regulators.
"But PHMSA still needs to get done with its standards," Hoeven added.
Hoeven told The Hill he is working to set up a meeting with the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sylvia Burwell, to help move the proposed regulations along.
"There is a real possibility we will have a hearing as well," Hoeven said. "I will also work through appropriations to increase funding for inspectors and to increase inspections of railcars.”
Hoeven is also toying with the possibility of legislation in response to the Transportation Department announcement that it would not finalize rules on the development of new railcars until 2015.
"We are concerned that unless DOT provides guidance sooner, the timeline will be too long for industry to transition to newer, safer tanker cars in a timely way," Hoeven said in a statement following the announcement.
"We are evaluating legislation to further advance the timeline, as well,” he said.
Heitkamp focused on the FRA’s changes, saying the railroad agency was responding quickly to pressure from her office.
“I called on the U.S. Department of Transportation and FRA to also make safety a priority and look at the quality of rail track around Casselton, as the most basic way to improve safety is to make sure rail tracks are in top shape,” Heitkamp said in a statement.
“FRA's effort to improve track safety shows the agency is listening, and it may lead to better track quality in North Dakota and throughout the country," she said.
Hoeven and other Republicans have seized on the North Dakota crash, and another recent oil train derailment in Quebec, Canada, to push the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
If oil companies could use the pipeline to ship their products, there would be less rail accidents involving hazardous materials, Hoeven said
"The president always wants to talk about more government regulations, when he should be empowering the investments that will make more jobs and help move along the energy renaissance in this country," Hoeven said of Keystone XL and the proposed railcar standards.
"The administration is holding this needed infrastructure up."
Heitkamp is also in favor of constructing the Keystone pipeline, but she focused her statement Friday on the immediate improvements to freight rail shipping rules.
“As we assess the derailment in Casselton and work to prevent future derailments, my top priority is safety,” the freshman Democrat said. “North Dakotans should not have any concern about feeling safe in their homes and communities."
The recommendations that were issued separately by the NTSB this week include re-routing trains carrying oil around populated areas.
NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the oil-by-rail shipping industry was under-regulated because it was largely new.
"The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn't exist ten years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," Hersman said in a statement announcing the NTSB’s recommendations. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm."
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week that the Obama administration was pushing oil and rail companies to make improvements on their own.
"After an oil train derailed and spilled last month in North Dakota, I called a meeting of the rail and petroleum industries,” Foxx told the group.
“In fact, we met with them just last week, and worked with them to identify measures that they can take right now to ensure that oil is transported safely through our communities,” the DOT chief continued. “And my expectation is that over the next several days and weeks, they will act."