Justin Mikulka's blog

Congresswoman Declares Pipeline and Oil-by-Rail Regulatory System "Fundamentally Broken"

The system is fundamentally broken.”

Those were the words of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) during an April 14th hearing on oil-by-rail and pipeline safety.

For anyone expecting the soon to be released oil-by-rail regulations to make any meaningful improvements to safety, it would be wise to review the full comments made by Rep. Speier.

Science vs Spin: Dilbit Sinks in the Real World, But Not in Studies Funded by Oil Industry

EPA Kalamazoo River Cleanup

Once the oil started to sink, it made things a lot more difficult on our recovery.”

Those were the words of Greg Powell of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during his presentation on March 10th at the National Academy of Sciences conference on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment. Powell was one of the people involved in the response and clean up of the Kalamazoo River tar sands dilbit spill in 2010 where an Enbridge pipeline cracked and spilled approximately one million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

Rail Industry Lobbied Against New Oil-by-Rail Safety Regulations The Day After Rail Accident

With the recent run of exploding oil train accidents, it isn’t surprising that the rail industry has publicly expressed concern about hauling highly flammable oils like Bakken light crude and diluted tar sands. But that's all the industry has done: express concern. It certainly hasn't done anything to act on its concerns.

For instance, Hunter Harrison, CEO of Canadian Pacific railway and the man who is on record as saying that regulators “overreacted” to the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, recently said Canadian Pacific might get out of the oil hauling business.

“Our board of directors looked at this very carefully and said, ‘what kind of exposure do we have and what kind of exposure are we [exposing] the public to by hauling some of these commodities?’” Harrison told BNN television. “And in spite of the bottom line—and I was very proud—we’ve sat back and said we might get out of this business.”

Of course, Hunter Harrison is a savvy businessman who has a record of relentless pursuit of profit. Harrison knows full well that the common carrier laws that apply to rail shipments make it so that he would have to shut down Canadian Pacific if he wanted to get out of the oil hauling business. Which isn’t likely.

What is more likely is that, just like rail company BNSF’s early 2014 public relations stunt in which the company said it was buying 5,000 safer rail cars to haul oil but then never did, Harrison is also just feeding the media a good story.

Because two days after Harrison was telling the media he wanted out of the oil hauling business, and one day after the exploding oil train accident in Galena, Illinois, Glen Wilson, Canadian Pacific’s Vice President of Safety, Environmental and Regulatory Affairs, was in Washington, D.C. lobbying against new oil train safety regulations.

Tar Sands by Rail Disasters: The Latest Wave in the Bomb Train Assault

With the first crash and explosion of a unit train of tar sands oil in Canada in February, we learned that the conventional wisdom among people covering the oil-by-rail industry regarding the flammability of tar sands oil has been dead wrong. A second derailment and explosion on March 7th involved synbit, which is a form of bitumen diluted with synthetic crude oil.

While there are many examples of this mischaracterization of the dangers of moving tar sands by rail that can be found in the press, here at DeSmogBlog we didn’t have to look far. In an article last year about how to make Bakken crude less dangerous we wrote that the government had plans to allow tar sands oil to be transported in the unsafe DOT-111 rail tank cars “because it is not explosive.”

While raw bitumen from the Alberta tar sands is not volatile or highly flammable, when it is diluted with natural gas condensate to form a mixture known as dilbit, which is typically done to make it easier to transport, it appears that it can be as dangerous as the Bakken crude that has now been proven to be highly flammable and explosive in multiple train derailments.

An article in Railway Age pointing out the implications of the tar-sands-by-rail accident had the ominous title “Why bitumen isn’t necessarily safer than Bakken” and concluded with the statement that “Should TSB [Transportation Safety Board] conclude that dilbit has a volatility similar to Bakken crude, as the Alberta research suggests, the hazmat classification of crude oil could be in question.”

Exploding Trains, No New Regulations, Record Industry Profits: The Oil-by-Rail Story

A month ago there was a close call for the oil-by-rail industry. As part of the Cromnibus bill that President Obama signed in December, new oil-by-rail regulations were supposed to be finalized and implemented by regulators by January 15th.

Two days before that deadline, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency responsible for new regulations, posted new documents on their website related to recent meetings between PHMSA and various oil and rail industry lobbyists.

They did not issue a press release about these meetings, unlike the meetings a year ago when the industry volunteered to try improving its safety record and there was plenty of publicity.

And then it was announced that new regulations would once again be delayed, this time until May 2015.

Since that delay an ethanol train has derailed resulting in burning rail cars and ethanol spilling into the Mississippi River. An oil train derailed and caught fire in Gogama, Canada. And another oil train of Bakken crude oil derailed, exploded, and leaked oil into the Kanawha River near Mount Carbon, West Virginia.

Singing Industry’s Tune: How Rep. Jeff Denham Plans to Delay Oil-by-Rail Safety Improvements

Vintage effect applied to fast moving freight train

I just want to make sure that we are all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry and we want to work together on improving that industry.”

Those were the words of Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials on February 3rd at a hearing titled “How the Changing Energy Markets Will Affect U.S. Transportation.” He was directing this advice to Greg Saxton, chief engineer for rail tank car manufacturer Greenbrier.

Denham obviously had a bone to pick with Saxton because prior to the hearing the Modesto Bee, a newspaper in Denham’s home district, ran an editorial making a strong case that the existing tank cars used to transport crude oil are unsafe. The editorial, “Delays on safer rail cars are unacceptable,” didn’t mince words. It was clear on what should happen: “The DOT [Department of Transportation] should adopt rules for those cars then set deadlines to replace every single tank car in America. Our elected representatives should insist on it.”

In Modesto, the elected representative who should be insisting on that is Jeff Denham.

Modesto is also home to Greenbrier’s manufacturing facilities and the editorial quoted Saxton for its conclusion noting his position on the lack of new regulations. “We just need a decision. Twenty years is too long.”

This is not the tune that Chairman Denham wants everyone to be singing. In his comments to Saxton at the hearing he explained his intent.

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