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With rise in rail transport of crude oil through region, new calls for tougher safety standards

by Ilene Grossman ~ October 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
On an average day in Minnesota, seven oil-carrying trains cross the state, usually through the heavily populated Twin Cities area. Each train has an average of 110 cars containing 3.3 million gallons of oil, for a total of 23 million gallons of crude oil crossing through the state each day.
The oil mostly comes from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, on the way to refineries as far away as 1,000 miles or more.
The increased activity in Minnesota reflects a national trend: huge growth in the shipment of crude oil by rail, from 9,500 rail carloads in 2008 to 415,000 in 2013. And the safety of these shipments has become a greater concern in the Midwest, in part because of recent serious rail accidents and explosions involving oil tanker cars in the United States and Canada.
The rise in production of Bakken oil, a light crude, also poses special safety challenges. Though easier to transport, it has a higher degree of volatility than most other crude oils and is more flammable, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In late September, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton wrote to North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple expressing safety concerns and encouraging North Dakota to “establish conditioning standards that will decrease the volatility of Bakken oil being exported from North Dakota.” (Light crude from some other U.S. oil fields undergoes a conditioning process before being shipped.)
Meanwhile, new rules proposed this summer by the U.S. DOT also aim to tighten safety standards and ensure the safe movement of oil by train. They would apply to trains with 20 or more tank cars carrying flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol.
Older tanker cars would have to be either retrofitted or replaced, and beginning in October 2015, new cars would need to be equipped with thicker steel to provide greater protection during crashes and derailments. The DOT also wants these trains to have better braking systems.
But implementation of these standards will depend on the availability of new or upgraded tanker cars, notes Jennifer Macdonald, assistant vice president of government affairs for the Association of American Railroads. The association supports the new standards, she says, but adds that “it will be up to the tank-car manufacturing and supply industry to address their readiness.”
The federal proposal also calls for a new classification and testing program for mined gases and liquids, including crude oil, to ensure that they are being shipped in the appropriate container. Such a program would help first-responders follow the correct protocol when responding to a spill.
State emergency-management agencies, too, would have to be notified by the railroads of any train shipments carrying at least 1 million barrels of Bakken crude oil; this provision would codify an emergency order instituted in May.
Across the border in Canada, the country’s Transportation Safety Board has been working on new rules as well.
But whether the U.S. and Canadian governments develop “consistent, harmonized standards” (which the rail industry says are needed to ensure the efficient flow of energy products between the two countries) remains to be seen.


Article written by Ilene Grossman, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Midwest-Canada Relations Committee.