Foxx defends oil train regs from environmental, industry critics

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is defending a proposed crackdown on trains that carry crude oil shipments from environmental and industry critics who are unhappy with the new rules.

Foxx said in an interview with PBS that the Obama administration's proposal would gradually phase out thousands of older tank car models that have been blamed for high-profile crashes in the past year in North Dakota and Canada.

Environmental groups responded tepidly to the new rule because they said the older tank cars should have been taken off the rails immediately, while oil industry groups have said that it be too costly to completely switch the nation's fleet of freight rail tankers.

"The reality is that we have a market that has, at best, a third of new tank cars in it today. And so to transition the market, it's going to take some time just from a practical standpoint," the DOT chief said during an appearance on PBS's "NewsHour" program.

"We want to have the right standard set for the new tank car," Foxx continued. "And that's what we're proposing, is to have alternatives to improve the tank car standard."

Environmentalists said after the Obama administration unveiled its proposal that the older tank cars, which are known as DOT-111s, are too dangerous to continue transporting flammable liquids on railroad tracks that run near U.S. cities. 

Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman said Wednesday that it would take three to six years to remove all the older oil train cars from service under the Obama administration's proposal.

She called for an "immediate ban on shipping volatile crude in the DOT-111 tank cars."

“It is estimated that 25 million Americans live in the dangerous blast zone along the nation’s rail lines," Goldman said in a statement. "Last year alone, there were more accidents than in the total from the 37 years previous. We clearly can’t afford to accept this delay."

Foxx said the Obama administration's proposed regulations also included other requirements such new braking and speed restrictions for trains and new classification and testing programs for fuel transported by rail.

"This is also a comprehensive rule," he said. "It deals with speed. It deals with other aspects of this issue, so that we can ensure the safety of American people."

Foxx noted that the oil industry has complained about some aspects of the regulations, including a proposal to institute a 40 mile-per-hour speed limit on some sections of track that run near high-density areas.

The American Petroleum Institute said also on Wednesday that crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, which has been the focus of the Transportation Department's regulatory effort, has gotten a bad rap because it was involved in the earlier crashes.

"The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks,” API President Jack Gerard said in a statement. “Multiple studies have shown that Bakken crude is similar to other crudes. DOT needs to get this right and make sure that its regulations are grounded in facts and sound science, not speculation.”

Foxx said the reaction from the environmental and industry critics showed the Transportation Deparment's regulations were fair to all parties that were involved in their consideration.

"We have some folks saying we're moving too slow, some people saying we're moving too fast," he said. "We're probably in the right place. We are going to look forward to the comment period and listen to what folks have to say about it."