Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
May 10, 2014
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New federal regulations aim to make trains transporting crude safer

Decision comes after a number of accidents

WASHINGTON, D.C. – You might have missed it in the midst of the ongoing debate about the Keystone Pipeline, but the Department of Transportation announced new safety regulations Wednesday for one of the chief alternatives to pipelines — trains.

Thirty days from now all railroads must notify local emergency responders when oil shipments are traveling through their states, the emergency federal rule states.

The regulations also require train operators to provide state emergency officials with additional information regarding routes taken if trains are carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude, which accounts for most of the trains that transfer crude.

Bakken crude is the most common type of oil drilled in the United States. The crude is found in a 200,000-square-mile rock unit underneath parts of Montana, North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada. Due to its lower “flash” or ignition point, it is considered more dangerous than other types.

The new regulations follow a number of accidents in the past year involving trains carrying crude. At least five serious train derailments and explosions occurred since last July, including an explosion last month in Lynchburg, Va.

The Department of Transportation plan comes at an interesting time for President Barack Obama, who is considering whether to agree to the 1,200 mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Patoka, Illinois; Steele City and Wood River, Nebraska; and the gulf coast of Texas. It also would carry Bakken from Montana and North Dakota.

Some people argue that train accidents are a reason to approve Keystone and maybe other pipelines, which they say are safer than trains for transporting crude. As the Wall Street Journal reported, if Keystone is rejected, oil producers will likely increasingly turn to rail.

But the jury is still out over which method is best for transferring crude oil, especially Bakken.

Transport of crude by trains has increased as the technology to drill tar sands for oil evolved. Shipments have gone from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to nearly 233,850 carloads in 2012, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Some states, including New York, Minnesota and Oregon, and some cities, have urged railroads to provide more information regarding their shipping contents and methods. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued anexecutive order in January to review crude oil rail safety in the state.