PHMSA

“Pipeline Nation” Short Documentary Investigates Lack Of Oversight Of “America’s Broken Industry”

In a new short documentary called “Pipeline Nation: America’s Broken Industry,” Vice News travels to Glendive, Montana, where a pipeline ruptured on January 17 of this year, spilling 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River and contaminating the town’s drinking supply.

This was the second oil spill in the area in the past four years. An Exxon pipeline spilled over 60,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River near Billings, Montana in 2011.

The spill near Glendive involved Bakken crude, which is lighter and more volatile than heavy crude and evaporates more quickly, making it difficult to clean up.

“Our recovery of oil out of the water, it’s just… we’re not really getting much,” Paul Peronard, On-Site Coordinator for the EPA, tells Vice’s Nilo Tabrizy in the film. “Three-hundred-something barrels out of the pipeline in this immediate area, less than a couple barrels actually out of the water. So pretty much what is in the water is there and gone. And we aren’t going to recover it.”

“We never — and I’ll be clear about that — we never recover all the oil. Somebody who tells you that is telling you stories. In good conditions, you get half of the oil that hits the water.”

Heather Zichal, Former Top Obama Energy Aide, Named Fellow at Industry-Funded Atlantic Council

Heather Zichal, former top climate and energy aide to President Barack Obama his top aide in crafting his 2008 presidential campaign energy platform, has joined the industry-funded Atlantic Council as a fellow at its Global Energy Center.

Bomb Trains Keep Rolling While Congressional Committee Bickers About Bakken Crude

Congressman Paul Broun

When DeSmogBlog reported last week that no actual petroleum scientists would be testifying at the congressional science committee’s hearing on the characteristics of Bakken crude oil, we knew the hearing was unlikely to make any substantial progress toward improving the safety of transporting this volatile oil on trains through American communities.    

Indeed, we expected the hearing would be an exercise in avoiding getting the facts about Bakken crude to further delay or avoid regulations that would require the oil to be stabilized. But what actually transpired surprised even us and bordered on the absurd.

While the hearing was conducted under the banner of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, it was co-chaired by Subcommittee on Energy chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Subcommittee on Oversight chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.)

During his opening remarks, Congressman Broun ripped into the Obama administration for denying his attempts to get “experts in the subject matter” as witnesses.

While I look forward to hearing from both panels today, I must say I am disappointed — though not surprised — at this Administration’s continued unwillingness to work with the Congress. Chairman Lummis and I invited representatives from the agencies who are experts in the subject matter because we are interested in the science behind Bakken crude. Instead, both agencies appearing before the Committee today declined to provide the witnesses we requested, sending us in their place witnesses more knowledgeable on the politics behind Bakken crude. As I said, I am not surprised, just disappointed.

Rail CEOs to Investors: "Bomb Trains" Safe At Almost Any Speed

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) recently said it would proceed with plans to increase speeds for oil-by-rail unit trains in Devil’s Lake, N.D. to 60 MPH from 30 MPH, despite opposition from local officials

BNSF’s announcement came merely a week after the Obama Administration announced its proposed regulations for trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin.  

The rail industry’s position on speed limits for “bomb trains” is simple: they continuously claim velocity has nothing to do with oil-by-rail accidents or safety.

For example, Big Rail — as revealed by DeSmogBlog — lobbied against all proposed oil train speed reductions in its dozen or so private meetings at the Obama White House before the unveiling of the proposed oil-by-rail regulations. 

Recent statements by rail industry CEOs during investor calls put the heads of many companies on record opposing oil-by-rail speed limits for the first time.

Meeting Logs: Obama White House Quietly Coddling Big Oil on “Bomb Trains” Regulations

When Richard Revesz, Dean Emeritus of New York University Law School, introduced Howard Shelanski at his only public appearance so far during his tenure as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Revesz described Shelanski as, “from our perspective, close to the most important official in the federal government.”

OIRA has recently reared its head in a big way because it is currently reviewing the newly-proposed oil-by-rail safety regulations rolled out by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).   

During his presentation at NYU, Shelanski spoke at length about how OIRA must use “cost-benefit analysis” with regards to regulations, stating, “Cost-benefit analysis is an essential tool for regulatory policy.”

But during his confirmation hearings, Shelanski made sure to state his position on how cost-benefit analysis should be used in practice. Shelanski let corporate interests know he was well aware of their position on the cost of regulations and what they stood to lose from stringent regulations. 

Regulatory objectives should be achieved at no higher cost than is absolutely necessary,” Shelanski said at the hearing.

Questions Raised About Integrity of Keystone XL's Southern Route After Conditions Added for Northern Leg

The Keystone XL pipeline's southern route passes under Eleanor Fairchild's Texas property, so she got angry when she learned that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has added two new conditions to the 57 already required for construction of the pipeline's northern route.

“My fears were confirmed,” Fairchild told DeSmogBlog. “The regulators knew the southern route wasn’t built safely. It is like they have said to hell with us in Texas and Oklahoma.”


Eleanor Fairchild was defiant when TransCanada started installing the pipeline on her land. She kept a watchful eye during the installation and repair of the pipeline. ©2012 Julie Dermansky

Julia Trigg Crawford, another Texas landowner who fought TransCanada in the courts, shared a link to an Associated Press story that focuses on the two new conditions. “Read this ASAP to see why Texans and Oklahomans were so outraged about TransCanada's abysmal construction record on the southern leg of the Keystone XL,” she wrote.

Julia Trigg Crawford
Julia Trigg Crawford was labeled an activist by TransCanada attorney James Freemand. She considers herself a patriot for standing up for all Americans' property rights. ©2013 Julie Dermansky

The conditions require TransCanada to hire a third-party contractor chosen by PHMSA to monitor the construction and make reports to the U.S. government on whether the work is sound. Additionally, TransCanada must “develop and implement a quality management system that would apply to the construction of the entire Keystone XL project in the U.S. to ensure that this pipeline is — from the beginning — built to the highest standards by both Keystone personnel and its many contractors.”

The Tar Sands Blockade, an activist group that independently monitored the pipeline installation after failing to stop it, wrote on its blog that the new conditions suggest there are serious problems with the southern route.

“TransCanada’s internal quality management and PHMSA’s external inspection program were inadequate, if not fatally flawed. The failures implied by these new conditions beg the question: If TransCanada wasn’t adequately inspecting its own work, and PHMSA didn’t have the third-party inspection company it needed for effective oversight, was anyone actually watching TransCanada?”

Should CEOs Get Jail Time For Oil-By-Rail Accidents Like Lac Megantic?

Lac Megantic train explosion

On May 12th, a heavily armed SWAT unit stormed the home of Thomas Harding and threw Harding, his son and a visitor to the ground. Harding was then handcuffed, arrested and taken for interrogation.

Harding was the engineer for the oil train that caused the explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. He had cooperated with authorities and was expecting to be charged. The excessive force used to arrest Harding was criticized for being a “politically motivated stunt” in The National Post.

No one is claiming that Harding intentionally caused the accident — however, he is the one facing charges that could result in life in prison.

Meanwhile, the oil industry has knowingly shipped explosive Bakken crude oil and, in the case of Lac-Megantic, misclassified the oil to make it appear less explosive than it actually was.

Irving Oil has been identified by Canada's Transportation Safety Board as the party ultimately responsible for insuring the proper classification of the oil it had purchased. No one from Irving Oil has been charged with any crime.

Playing With Fire: U.S. Regulators Resort to Weak Voluntary Measures For Oil-By-Rail Safety

Lac Megantic train explosion via Shutterstock

Last year, Jeffrey Wiese, an official with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) told an industry conference that the regulatory process was “kind of dying.”

According to InsideClimate News, Wiese even mentioned that PHMSA was working on a YouTube channel to “persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations,” as this was one of the only ways it could attempt to improve safety.

PHMSA is the organization in charge of developing new regulations regarding the transportation of crude oil in rail tank cars. 

This week, the Department of Transportation, along with PHMSA, announced its new safety advisory regarding the rail transport of Bakken crude oil. As another example of how the regulatory process is “kind of dying,” the advisory includes no new regulations regarding rail tank cars but “strongly urges” the oil and rail industry to use safer tank cars. 

The advisory makes it clear that oil companies only have to be as safe as they can be while using the existing tank car “fleets” and that they should avoid using older DOT-111 cars to “the extent possible.”   

The dangerous DOT-111 tank cars currently make up approximately 70 percent of the existing fleet of tank cars used for moving oil by rail.

This advisory is just the latest in a long stream of recent safety measures, both voluntary and regulatory.

Feds Weaken New Oil-By-Rail Safety Regulations Days After Announcing Them

Oil train in Montana

Nine days after announcing new regulations designed to improve oil-by-rail safety, the Department of Transportation quietly weakened the rules for testing rail cars and exempted shippers of bitumen from having to meet the new regulations.

The department had been under pressure from industry since announcing new regulations in response to a round of testing on shipments of Bakken crude oil that found companies had classified crudes as less hazardous than they were in 11 of 18 rail cars.

The tanker cars that exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July of 2013 were also carrying Bakken crude that was misclassified.  The result of these errors is that first responders can arrive at a scene and expect a crude oil fire and instead find a “river of napalm”, as they did in Lac-Megantic.

Whistleblower Evan Voke’s Evidence Against TransCanada Whitewashed By Regulators

Pipeline safety regulators in North America have done nothing but write warning letters to TransCanada in the two years since former employee Evan Vokes revealed evidence indicating the company had been breaking the rules.

A recently released report by the Canadian National Energy Board on TransCanada's integrity management programs stated: “There are areas where the company was found to be out of compliance.” The board gave TransCanada 30 days to come up with a plan to fix things internally.

In response, Vokes released a statement through the advocacy group, Public Citizen stating:

The Canadian government's audit criticizing TransCanada’s failings is a start, but leaves numerous safety concerns unaddressed. An audit based on paper and interviews only cannot catch non-compliance in the field. In my experience, TransCanada’s management failings are systemic and won’t be fixed simply by reviewing what TransCanada says its policies are on paper. These kind of reviews have not fixed the problem in the past and they aren’t sufficient now. Time and again, TransCanada’s internal and third-party audit systems have failed to catch the repeated substandard practice of engineering in the construction and maintenance of its pipelines. Unless regulators in Canada and the United States step up to the plate to ensure compliance in the field, future ruptures and risks to Americans are inevitable.”

The Canadian Senate held hearings in 2013 about the transport of hazardous materials after Vokes went to the media with what he said was proof that TransCanada was breaking the law. During the hearings the National Energy board testified they had verified much of the evidence Vokes provided.

The Senate’s report cites the National Energy Board's conclusion that TransCanada's incidents of non-compliance do not represent immediate threats to the safety of people or the environment. The report notes the board advanced its previously scheduled audit of TransCanada to include the specific concerns raised by Vokes, but recommends no further action.

“The lack of accountability with regulators is appalling,” Vokes told DeSmog Blog. He says he came forward because the oath he took to become an engineer requires him to put public safety first.

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