Obama officials tighten safety rules for railways

The Obama administration on Wednesday unveiled strict rules for railway safety largely aimed at safeguarding shipments of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stressed that the regulations cover a variety of fuels shipped by rail, including ethanol, but made clear that the recent derailments of trains with Bakken oil were the driving force behind the changes.

"We need a new world order on how this stuff moves," Foxx said.

The rules would create new braking and speed restrictions for trains, institute a classification and testing program for fuels transported by rail and phase out thousands of older tank car models.

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Foxx called the standards "the most significant progress" to date on ensuring that the transportation of Bakken crude oil and other flammable liquids doesn’t put the nation at risk of dangerous explosions.

"More crude oil is being shipped by rail than ever before. If America is going to be a world leader in producing energy, our job at this department is to ensure that we’re also a world leader in safely transporting it,” he said.

Over two years, Foxx said the Transportation Department would require the phase-out of the older DOT-111 tank cars from transporting flammable liquids, more specifically Bakken crude oil.

The Railway Supply Institute estimates there are roughly 102,700 DOT-111 railcars in service, transporting oil, ethanol and other fuels.

The shipping industry will have options for enhancing the safety of their tank cars, including equipping new cars to have thicker or more puncture resistant walls and installing roll over protections.

The new standards also redefine a high-hazard flammable train as any rail transport that carries 20 or more carloads of crude oil, ethanol and flammable liquids. 

"Our rule-making is supported by sound science," Foxx said. "Bakken crude oil is on the high end of volatility compared to other crude oil."

Lawmakers had pressed the administration to toughen the standards, noting the increase in crude oil shipments spurred by the rapid development of Bakken’s oil resources.

Last year, 415,000 rail-carloads of Bakken crude oil were shipped across the U.S., a huge increase over the 9,500 carloads moved in 2008. The number of railcars carrying crude oil surged 83 percent in 2013 from the previous year.

Foxx said that, given the "urgency" of the situation, the Transportation Department does not intend to extend the typical 60-day public comment period on the rules.

Concerns about the crude oil shipments have mounted after a series of accidents.

Since last year's deadly Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment in Canada, which killed 42 people and incinerated 3 buildings, roughly six trains carrying crude oil have derailed across North America, resulting in explosions.

In April, a CSX Corp. train carrying crude oil derailed in Virginia, bursting into flames.

The Association of American Railroads cheered the administration for giving the industry certainty on the safety standards.

“This long-anticipated rule-making from DOT provides a much-needed pathway for enhancing the safe movement of flammable liquids in the U.S. Railroads are playing a critical role in our country’s progress toward energy independence, moving more energy products like crude oil and ethanol than ever before," said Edward R. Hamberger, CEO of the railroad association.

Hamberger said a number of the new standards are already being put into place.

Leading up to the proposal Wednesday, the DOT and the White House met with multiple railroads and oil companies to discuss the safety reforms.

As work on the rules progressed behind the scenes, lawmakers kept up the pressure

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday said the long fight to phase out "dangerous" tanker cars had finally ended.

"These desperately needed safety regulations will phase out the aged and explosion-prone DOT-111 tanker cars that are hauling endless streams of highly flammable crude oil through communities across the country and New York."

Environmental groups, meanwhile, found little to praise in the new proposal, and said the administration should have immediately banned of all DOT-111s, rather than letting the industry phase them out.

"The rules proposed today by the Department of Transportation acknowledge the dangerous risks inherent to transporting oil by rail but do far too little, too late, and the process takes far too long," said Michael Brune, director of the Sierra Club. "These dangers exist today, so they need to be addressed right now."

While much of the focus of the rules falls on crude oil from the Bakken formation, federal officials and lawmakers have warned that crude oil of "all types and from all regions" pose a flammability risk during rail transport.

Still, Foxx stressed that crude from the Bakken is uniquely volatile, more than most fuels, and the problem is the infrastructure and process in North Dakota.

"Unlike other places in the country where similar types of oil are excavated the refining infrastructure in North Dakota is very rudimentary," Foxx said. "That combination of a lack of greater separation at excavation coupled with the volume of trains and distances is one of the unique features of this issue."

"We are very open to working with the industry in this area but at same time we are not going to stop the progress we are making on this rule."

 — This story was first posted at 11:21 a.m. and has been updated.