WASHINGTON – The chairmen of the Senate Energy and Transportation committees on Thursday urged the Obama administration to take “prompt and decisive” action following a number of train derailments involving crude oil shipments, including a fiery explosion in North Dakota last month and an explosion that killed 47 people in Canada last year.
Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the recent derailments alarming and said the administration should evaluate whether federal rules adequately address the risks of carrying crude oil by rail.
A recent increase in oil shipments by rail and the string of derailments “demand increased vigilance,” Wyden and Rockefeller wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Rockefeller chairs the Senate transportation panel while Wyden leads energy.
The oil boom in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana has reduced the nation’s reliance on imported oil and brought thousands of jobs. But as companies increasingly rely on trains instead of pipelines to get that oil to refineries in lucrative coastal markets in the U.S. and Canada, public safety in communities bisected by rail lines has become a major concern.
The letter from Rockefeller and Wyden came as members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation met Thursday with Foxx and Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Lawmakers said later that federal officials appeared to be moving quickly to respond to the issue.
The Transportation Department warned last week that the high-grade crude oil from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional forms of oil.
In July, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed near the Maine border. Another oil train from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Alabama in November, causing no deaths but releasing an estimated 749,000 gallons of oil from 26 tanker cars.
A Dec. 30 train derailment near Casselton, N.D., caused a huge explosion and prompted the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
About 78,000 of the 92,000 tank cars in the U.S. that carry oil and other flammable liquids were built under old safety standards and are prone to splitting open during derailments. Defects in those cars were noted as far back as 1991, yet a push to retrofit the fleet has been mired for years in the bureaucratic rule-making process.
The railroad industry in November came out in favor of improvements to the older cars after long resisting retrofits. Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, said Thursday that those improvements should be put in place “as swiftly and aggressively as possible.”
However, the oil industry remains opposed to changes that carry an estimated price tag of $1 billion. The American Petroleum Institute said in a recent letter to the Transportation Department that there has not been “sufficient justification” for the proposed changes.