Senate Dem: Oil industry paying 'lip service' to freight rail safety

AP

The chairman of the Senate committee that oversees transportation issues said Monday that oil companies are dragging their feet on providing data to regulators about the safety of freight trains that are used to carry crude oil.

The shipment of oil by freight trains have faced scrutiny from lawmakers since a series of high-profile derailments like a crash that spilled 400,000 gallons of oil in Cassellton, N.D. last year.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the oil industry was not keeping its promise to federal regulators to voluntary report additional information about safety testing of oil trains. 

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“Just last month before the Commerce Committee, the crude oil industry assured us they were focused on safety and willing to work on this issue," Rockefeller said in a statement. "Since then, I’ve seen nothing to convince me this was more than just lip service."

The debate over the safety of oil shipments by freight trains has been used by supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline to argue in favor of building the controversial project. They argue that the amount of oil that is being shipped on trains would be reduced if companies had the option of using the pipeline.

The Obama administration has not yet issued a final ruling on the Keystone pipeline, but its members have appeared to be unswayed by the suggested link between freight rail safety and its construction.

Lawmakers have introduced legislation to boost the regulation of crude oil freight rail shipments in the meantime. Also, the Department of Transportation's The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have additionally said they will take action through the federal regulatory process.

Among the changes is lowering the speed limit for oil trains and requiring more frequent track inspections. 

Rockefeller said he and other legislators had received assurances from the American Petroleum Institute (API) that the crude industry was on board with the push to increase the safety of oil trains.

But the West Virginia senator said on Monday that Congress was still waiting to see the promised assistance.

"Congress and DOT have been patiently waiting for industry to share the data necessary to improve the safety of shipping crude – and I see no justifiable reason for the delay," Rockefeller said.

"While the economic benefits of shipping crude by rail may be immense, the safety shortcomings can become horrific disasters and heartbreaking tragedies as we saw in Lac Megantic and North Dakota," Rockefeller continued. "Industry must step up to provide the highest level of safety to the millions of people whose communities these freight trains travel through every day. And I intend to make sure this happens.”

The API did not respond to a request for a response to Rockefeller's statements.