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Hoeven: Casselton collision will turn attention to pipelines

It may be only a matter of time until projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline again are vaulted into the national spotlight.

Though no one — much less North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven — would argue there will ever be an accident-proof way to transport oil, Monday's train collision in Casselton could ignite a fresh round of debate about pipeline versus rail transport.

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“This will bring more attention to the pipelines and create more of a push,” Hoeven said Wednesday. “We need more pipelines, not only Keystone XL, but other pipelines and more gas gathering systems. That would not only make a difference with the amount of product that needs to move by rail, but it would also reduce truck traffic on (North Dakota) roads.”

On the heels of this week's train derailment and collision, which sent flames shooting into the air and produced smoke that could be seen for miles, a story published Wednesday on the Bloomberg News website suggested the disaster has renewed the rail vs. pipeline debate.

Though he has been an outspoken supporter of the Keystone XL project — which would ship mostly Alberta tar sands oil (and some Bakken oil) from north of the U.S./Canada border to the Gulf of Mexico — Hoeven said a big issue with transporting oil via rail is the fact that some of the cars used to move it are outdated.

Hoeven said he sent a letter to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration about a year ago stressing the need to upgrade some of the tankers that transport oil. Hoeven added that he plans to meet soon with U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees PHMSA, officials to discuss his concerns.

“We need to make sure that when we move oil and gas by rail and by truck, we’re doing it as safely as possible,” Hoeven said. “We need to, as aggressively as possible, push to transition the tanker fleet to the new and stronger tank cars. They’re working on new standards for rail cars and I wrote to them to say, ‘hey, get that done,’ so those new requirements are out there and the manufacturers know what they need to do and we can get this fleet transitioned as rapidly as possible.”

The first-term Republican said the newer tanker cars are double-walled, offering added protection in the event of something like a derailment.

While there were no injuries reported in the Casselton disaster, residents in the eastern North Dakota town were encouraged to evacuate as a safety precaution and Hoeven said he is concerned it could happen again as rail is now used as the main transporter of North Dakota oil.

In a statement released Tuesday, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said ensuring the well-being of local residents is his top priority, adding “it is a blessing no loss of life was suffered” and saying he will be closely monitoring the situation.

Another proponent of the Keystone XL, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., hinted in a statement sent following the Casselton collision that the pipeline issue could be gaining steam once again.

Hoeven, Cramer and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Tuesday met with National Transportation Safety Board officials in Casselton investigating the scene while Heitkamp said she was “in close contact with state and local” leaders, as well as federal and BNSF officials.

“I have always, and will continue to be, an advocate for increased investments in our energy infrastructure, so we can transport North Dakota energy as efficiently and safely as possible,” Heitkamp stated.

During a media briefing Wednesday in Fargo, NTSB representative Robert Sumwalt said a broken axle has been recovered from the crash. Though he said the investigation was still in the early stages, Sumwalt said investigators are “interested” in the broken axle and hope to conclude whether it contributed to what caused the initial derailment of a train carrying grain or was a result of the crash.

Stuck in a holding pattern for several years, the Keystone XL project still needs State Department approval, though Hoeven said he believes President Barack Obama is opposed to the controversial pipeline and predicted more “stalling” from the State Department over the $5.4 billion project.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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