Oil trains
Oil transport trains have recently been involved in several fiery accidents that were caused by excessive speed, driver error, poor track conditions, and inadequately-constructed tank cars. Most of the tank cars on our rails today are older, general-purpose tankers known as DOT-111s, each with a capacity of 34,500 gallons. For 25 years, the National Transportation Safety Board has warned these cars are inadequate for transporting volatile liquids such as ethanol and Bakken crude oil, saying its steel shell is too thin to withstand puncturing during derailments, and its valves are prone to breaking off during rollovers. Although no injuries were caused by a series of recent fiery oil train accidents in Ontario, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Alabama, West Virginia and Virginia, a runaway train carrying Bakken crude in DOT-111 cars derailed in Quebec, igniting an inferno that destroyed a city’s downtown and killed 47 residents. Statistics show oil transportation has increased by 4,200% in the 7 years since crude oil reserves were discovered in North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields. In 2013, at least 415,000 carloads of crude oil were shipped by rail, compared to 9,500 in 2008. Currently, there are about 98,000 oil tanker cars in use but only about 14,000, or 15%, of these are built to the latest safety standards. The Obama administration has proposed new rules which would phase out the use of DOT-111 tankers if they are not retrofitted with better safety features by 2018. These rules would also limit train speeds to 40-mph and would require trains carrying 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil to give advance notice to states along its route. The cost of making a tank car about 20% more resistant to punctures is at least $30,000. The complete cost to the rail industry of retrofitting our entire DOT-111 fleet is estimated to be in excess of $1 billion. Safety advocates say we should replace these dangerous tankers immediately, not several years from now. They also say legislation is needed since the stakes are high enough for the industry to try to water-down or delay these proposed rule changes until a new administration assumes office. The rail industry complains that, in addition to the expense, retrofitting older tankers will reduce their capacity by 800 gallons, forcing shippers to deploy more cars. They also want more time to retrofit or replace the DOT-111 fleet.

Recently, fiery oil train accidents have occurred in Lynchburg and Mount Carbon where even newer-model railcars derailed and spectacularly exploded. Advocates say that, compared to conventionally-extracted oil, North Dakota’s petroleum contains many volatile compounds which are much more prone to explosion when ignited. In other places such as Texas, crude oil is routinely stabilized when pumped from the well, before being placed in railcars for safer shipment. This stabilization process removes 98% of the gaseous hydrocarbons and light liquid fractions found in crude oil. These hydrocarbons are then transferred to gas-treatment plants, while the stabilized petroleum is shipped to distant refineries. However, in the rush to develop North Dakota’s oil fields, infrastructure such as pipelines and treatment plants needed to process gaseous hydrocarbons were omitted. A decision was made to ship volatile oil in substandard tank cars. Advocates claim this is the reason Bakken oil is responsible for such huge explosions when derailments occur, saying we are fortunate no lives have yet been lost to these accidents.

Due the decreasing price of crude oil caused by the worldwide oversupply, many railway oil tank cars filled with unused crude oil are now being stored on train tracks in rural areas for extended periods of time. Advocates, concerned with the safety and security of this trend, say this practice presents too great a risk to residents and the environment.

Pending Legislation:
H.R.1789-Tank Car Safety and Security Act of 2015

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Poll Opening Date
May 21, 2020
Poll Closing Date
May 27, 2020

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