Lac-Megantic

Wed, 2014-07-09 10:38Justin Mikulka
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Fox Guarding Henhouse: Oil-By-Rail Standards Led by American Petroleum Institute

How did it get missed for the last ten years?”

That was the question Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), posed to a panel of industry representatives back in April about how the rail industry had missed the fact that Bakken oil is more explosive than traditional crude oil.

How do we move to an environment where commodities are classified in the right containers from the get go and not just put in until we figure out that there’s a problem,” Hersman asked during the two-day forum on transportation of crude oil and ethanol. “Is there a process for that?”

The first panelist to respond was Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of environmental and hazardous materials for the Association of American Railroads (AAR). His response was telling.

We’ve know about this long before Lac-Megantic and that is why we initiated the tank car committee activity and passed CPC-1232 in 2011,” Fronczak replied, “To ask why the standards are the way they are, you’d have to ask DOT that.”

So, now as the new oil-by-rail safety regulations have been sent from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, it seems like a good time to review Hersman’s questions.

How did we miss this? Is there a process to properly classify commodities for the right container before they are ever shipped? 

Sun, 2014-07-06 14:14Carol Linnitt
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One Year After Lac-Mégantic Disaster: Delay in Safety Regs, Groups Bring Oil Train Data to Communities

Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment, explosion

On July 6th, 2013, one year ago today, a train carrying oil derailed in the sleepy Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, resulting in an explosion so wild and so hot it leveled several city blocks and incinerated the bodies of many of its 47 victims. The accident put the tiny town on the international media circuit and dragged a new social concern with it: oil trains.

Whether you call them oil trains, tanker trains or bomb trains, chances are you didn’t call them anything at all before this day last year.

Before the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic, several smaller tanker train accidents across North America had already raised alarm over the danger of transporting oil and other fuels by rail in small communities with tracks often running through city centres and residential areas.

In the wake of Lac-Mégantic, however, critics, environmental organizations, journalists and concerned communities began tracking the growing movement of volatile oil shipments across the continent.

Wed, 2014-07-02 10:38Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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For Oil-By-Rail, a Battle Between “Right to Know” and “Need to Know”

Lac Megantic train explosion

Since the first major oil-by-rail explosion occurred on July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, citizens in communities across the U.S. have risen up when they've learned their communities are destinations for volatile oil obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin. 

As the old adage goes, ignorance is bliss. It's also one of the keys to how massive oil-by-rail infrastructure was built in just a few short years — the public simply didn't know about it. 

Often, oil companies are only required to get state-level air quality permits to open a new oil-by-rail facility.

Terry Wechsler, an environmental attorney in Washington, recently explained to Reuters why there was no opposition to the first three oil-by-rail facilities in the area.

“There was no opposition to the other three proposals only because we weren't aware they were in formal permitting,” he said

The same thing unfolded in Albany, N.Y., where there is an ongoing battle over expansion of the major oil-by-rail facility set to process tar sands crude sent by rail from Alberta. The initial permits for the oil rail transfer facility, which would allow two companies to bring in billions of gallons of oil a year, were approved with no public comment

Wed, 2014-06-18 07:06Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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White House Meeting Logs: Big Rail Lobbying Against "Bomb Train" Regulations It Publicly Touts

Lynchburg, Virginia Oil Train Explosion

The Obama White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has held the majority of its meetings on the proposed federal oil-by-rail safety regulations with oil and gas industry lobbyists and representatives.

But OIRA meeting logs reviewed by DeSmogBlog reveal that on June 10, the American Association of Railroads (AAR) and many of its dues-paying members also had a chance to convene with OIRA

Big Rail has talked a big game to the public about its desire for increased safety measures for its trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale. What happens behind closed doors, the meeting logs show, tells another story. 

At the June 12-13 Railway Age Oil-by-Rail Conference, just two days after rail industry representatives met with OIRA, American Association of Railroads President Edward Hamberg, former assistant secretary for governmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), made the case for safety. 

“Railroads believe that federal tank car standards should be raised to ensure crude oil and other flammable liquids are moving in the safest car possible based on the product they are moving,” said Hamberg.

The industry also wants the existing crude oil fleet upgraded through retrofits or older cars to be phased out as quickly as possible.”

Yet despite public declarations along these lines, proactive safety measures were off the table for all four of Big Rail's presentations to OIRA.  

Though private discussions, the documents made public from the meeting show one consistent message from the rail industry: safety costs big bucks. And these are bucks industry is going to fight against having to spend.

Tue, 2014-03-18 06:00Sharon Kelly
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A Record Year of Oil Train Accidents Leaves Insurers Wary

Spurred by the shale drilling rush that has progressed at breakneck speed, the railroad industry has moved fast to help drillers transport petroleum and its byproducts to consumers. Last year, trains hauled over 400,000 carloads of crude oil, up from just 9,500 carloads in 2008, according to railroad industry estimates.  Each carload represents roughly 30,000 gallons of flammable liquids, and some trains haul over 100 oil cars at a time.

But with this fast expansion has come some astounding risks — risks that have insurance companies and underwriters increasingly concerned.

A string of oil train explosions have highlighted the potential for harm. A train hauling 2.9 million gallons of Bakken oil derailed and exploded on November 8 in Aliceville, Alabama, and the oil that leaked but did not burn continues to foul the wetlands in the area.

On December 30th, a train collision in Casselton, North Dakota 20 miles outside of Fargo, prompted a mass evacuation of over half the town’s residents after 18 cars exploded into fireballs visible for miles. 400,000 gallons of oil spilled after that accident, which involved two trains traveling well below local speed limits.

Those crashes are all on the radar of the insurance industry,” attorney Dean Hansell recently told Law360.

All told, railcar accidents spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil in 2013, federal data shows, compared with an average of just 22,000 gallons a year from 1975 through 2012 — a fifty-fold spike.

Mon, 2013-07-22 10:00Ben Jervey
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Oil On The Tracks: The Crude-by-Rail Boom By the Numbers

The tragic oil train explosion earlier this month in Lac-Megantic, Quebec has focused a spotlight on the growing role of rail in the transportation of North American crude. But even after that tragedy, the extent of rail’s expansion in transporting oil is still little understood by the typical driver at the pump.

So DeSmog is going to dedicate a couple of posts expanding on an earlier post about this staggering boom in crude-by-rail – why it's happening, where the oil is going, what the risks are, and who stands to benefit most from the trend.  

On November 7, 2011, the Bakken Oil Express loaded up its first railcar with North Dakota crude and started churning south towards a Gulf Coast refinery. This wasn’t the first crude-by-rail shipment in U.S. history (John D. Rockefeller might have something to say about that), nor the first time in recent history that shale crude was shuttled out of the Bakken by rail.

But if you’re looking for a pivot point in the transportation trends of North American crude, the christening of the Bakken Oil Express is a fitting one.

The Bakken Oil Express is just one piece of a rapidly expanding network of North American oil tanker trains, but it's a particularly symbolic one, quickly brought online to handle the spiking production of North Dakota sweet crude. 

According to the Association of American Railroads (PDF), “In 2008, U.S. Class I railroads originated just 9,500 carloads of crude oil. In 2012, they originated nearly 234,000 carloads. Based on the more than 97,000 rail carloads of crude oil in the first quarter of this year, another big jump is expected in 2013.” 

That’s nearly a 2400-percent increase in five short years, and the upward trend looks to be growing even faster in 2013.

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