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New binational standards aim to improve safety of oil shipments by rail

by Ilene Grossman ~ June 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Two years ago, an explosive fire caused by a rail tanker car carrying crude oil took 47 lives and destroyed much of the downtown Québec city of Lac Megantic. A number of nonfatal fires involving oil-carrying trains have followed, most recently this year in Illinois and North Dakota.
These incidents have raised safety concerns on both sides of the border, as well as this question: What can governments do to prevent the accidents from occurring? This spring, a mix of new federal and state standards were unveiled that set new rules for tanker cars and what is being loaded on them.
Traditionally, much of the oil produced in the United States and Canada has been shipped via pipeline, but North Dakota lacks enough pipeline capacity to meet demand. As a result, as of mid-2014, about 60 percent of the crude oil produced in the Bakken region was being shipped by rail. (Average daily oil production in that region has grown from just under 310,000 barrels in 2010 to nearly 1.2 million for the first two months of 2015.)
The recent accidents on both sides of the border have underscored the difficulty in containing explosions and fires caused by trains carrying crude oil. And they have also highlighted the safety problems with older tanker cars. In May, U.S. and Canadian transportation officials unveiled new tanker car standards; they were developed collaboratively because of the two countries’ interconnected freight rail system.
A range of older tanker cars now in use will have to be either retrofitted or phased out within three to five years. And starting in October 2015, any tanker car manufactured for use in the two countries must meet a new binational safety standard — for example, new shields, stronger valves and other protective equipment that allow the cars to withstand fires without rupturing.
Major urban areas in the Midwest are part of the routes that bring the oil produced in this region to refineries nationwide. The amount of crude oil shipped from the Bakken to East Coast refineries alone tops more than 400,000 barrels a day, and many of those trains come through the Chicago area, the largest freight rail hub in the country.
According to the Chicago Tribune, about 40 trains a day, each carrying up to a million gallons of oil, pass through the area. In 2014, an average of seven trains carrying oil passed through Minnesota each day. The trains generally are 110 cars long and carry 3.3 million gallons of oil. Most pass through the Twin Cities area.
In April, North Dakota announced that certain gases and liquids would have to be removed before crude oil could be loaded onto trains. This rule will make the oil more stable for shipment; Bakken oil is more volatile than other types of crude oil.


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