Spurred by a boom in oil-carrying trains and several recent tragic accidents, the Obama administration proposed stricter rules Wednesday for tank cars that transport flammable fuels.
The long-awaited proposal will require the phaseout, within two years, of tens of thousands of tank cars unless they are retrofitted to meet new safety standards. It will also require speed limits, better braking and testing of volatile liquids, including oil.
"We need a new world order on how this stuff moves," Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters in announcing the rules. "More crude is being shipped by rail than ever before."
Foxx said DOT tests have found that oil produced in North Dakota's Bakken shale region, compared to other crudes, "is on the high end of volatility" and is sometimes improperly classified by shippers as less flammable than it is. Also, a new DOT report said Bakken crude shipments travel, on average, more than 1,000 miles to coastal refineries, raising the risk of an accident.
As U.S. oil production soars, especially in regions like the Bakken that lack sufficient pipeline capacity, shipments of oil by rail have skyrocketed and several derailments have raised safety concerns. In May, an oil-carrying freight train derailed in Lynchburg, Va., spilling 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River. Last year in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, an oil train exploded and killed 47 people.
Members of Congress, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have held hearings and urged DOT to issue tougher rules, citing the surge in rail traffic. The number of oil-carrying cars run by seven major U.S. railroads jumped from 9,500 in 2008 to 407,761 in 2013 and totaled 110,164 in the first quarter this year, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group.
The DOT is requesting public comment on a 40-mph speed limit for trains with tank cars that do not meet the new standards, a 50-mph maximum for those that do and a 30-mph restriction for those that do not comply with stricter braking requirements.
The department's proposal, which will take months to finalize after a 60-day comment period, applies to shipments with at least 20 rail cars carrying flammable fuels, including ethanol. It's the latest of several DOT efforts, including a requirement issued in May that trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of oil notify local emergency responders when those shipments travel through their states.
Some environmentalists criticized the proposed rules. Michael Brune, Sierra Club's executive director, said they do "far too little, too late, and the process takes far too long." He said destructive oil spills from rail cars are occurring at a record pace, and "they need to be addressed right now." Last week, his group called for an immediate ban on outdated oil tank cars.
Murray, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee overseeing DOT and set an October deadline for federal tank car rules, called the DOT proposal "a step in the right direction." In a statement, though, she added: "There is still more work to be done, by both regulators and industry to ensure that crude oil can be transported safely by rail."
AAR president Edward Hamberger said his railroad group is examining the details but sees the DOT proposal as "a much-needed pathway for enhancing the safe movement of flammable liquids." He said it incorporates several voluntary practices the industry has taken. At an industry event last month, he said the existing fleet of oil-carrying tank cars need to be either upgraded through retrofits or older cars should be phased out.
Under the proposed rules, the rail cars facing retrofit or phaseout — known as DOT-111s — are designed to carry a wide range of products. They account for 228,000 of the 335,000 units in the active fleet, and 92,000 of them move flammable liquids, such as oil and ethanol, according to the AAR. It says only 18,000 have been built to the industry's latest safety standards