The recent derailment of a BNSF Railway train near a small town in North Dakota has reignited the debate over railcar safety — a debate which has sparked contentious new rules governing oil tank cars.
But new regulations for oil tank cars don’t actually solve the problems of train derailments, according to a former federal regulator. The recent slew of derailments have largely been caused by problems with the tracks, not the fact that trains are carrying oil.
“We wouldn’t be talking about this stuff if we didn’t have derailment,” Brigham McCown, the former head of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under President George W. Bush, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The tiny town of Heimdal, N.D., was evacuated Wednesday after about seven rail cars carrying oil derailed and caught fire. Fortunately no injuries were reported. The cause of the derailment was unknown, but activists were quick to blame oil drilling for making railcars more dangerous.
“We need tougher standards for rail cars that transport crude oil and we need to get the unsafe, failure-prone cars off the rails right now — not in five years,” Devorah Ancel, an attorney at the Sierra Club, said in a statement, adding that “volatile fuels like Bakken crude in the ground.”
This is the fifth accident of the CPC 1232 tank cars that has happened since February, reports the Associated Press. This has lead groups like the Sierra Club to call for banning the cars from moving oil. But virtually all of the recent accidents have been caused by derailments, not problems with the cars themselves.
In response to such accidents, including a major one in 2013 that killed 47 people, the Obama administration has imposed new regulations on tank cars carrying oil. These regulations were criticized by environmental groups for not going far enough — even though many of these groups just want oil off railways, period.
“These industry friendly regulations virtually guarantee more explosive derailments, putting people and the environment at great risk,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Oil trains should be stopped because of the inherent dangers to the public and wildlife, and their role in climate disruption.”
McCown told TheDCNF that while the new oil tank cars are probably necessary, they don’t address the fundamental reason why these cars are exploding — aging railroad tracks are causing them to derail in the first place.
What’s been lacking, he says, is deploying new technologies to make the rails safer and new investments to improve tracks.
“We really need to focus on our aging infrastructure,” he told TheDCNF.
The railroad industry says it plans on spending $29 billion this year to expand and maintain its railways. That works out to about $79 million per day, some of which will go towards enhancing rail safety, but McCown argues it doesn’t seem to be enough to curb derailments.
Federal Railroad Administration data shows that poor track integrity was the number one cause of the more than 1,100 Class 1 derailments during 2014. What’s “lacking is the deployment of advanced sensor technology,” McCown said.
That’s not to say rail isn’t safe for moving crude oil and other hazardous material. The Association of American Railroads says the industry’s safety has improved greatly since the 1980s. Accident rates for moving hazardous materials has fallen 91 percent since 1980 and 35 percent since 2000.
“This is a federal railroad issue,” McCown said. “This is Acting Administrator Feinberg’s problem.”
Even with an impressive safety record,though, the rash of recent derailments have allowed lawmakers and environmental activists that oppose oil and gas drilling to focus on restricting the movement of oil by rail.
“With trains carrying this highly-explosive material by homes, schools and businesses each day, we need a strong national volatility standard as opposed to a patchwork of state laws,” said New York Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey.
Booming oil production in the Bakken shale region of North Dakota has caused more producers to rely on trains to get their crude oil to market. But another reason oil by rail has become so prevalent is because of heavy political opposition to pipelines.
“The reason they’re carrying the bulk of the Bakken oil is because of the opposition to pipelines,” McCown said. “We need new pipelines coming out of the Bakken.”
Energy experts argue that pipelines have a higher safety rating than railcars and are a more cost-effective to move crude oil. Environmentalist opposition to pipelines, however, has made building them more difficult.
“[I]f that oil had been carried by pipeline there would not have been this accident,” Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, told CNBC in February.
“The advantage of pipeline is that the container is stationary and the product moves through it and it’s much safer than rail or truck, according to Department of Transportation statistics,” Furchtgott-Roth said. “We need to put human lives above all of this.”
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