Rules of the rail: Railroads ordered to send Bakken crude estimates to states
WASHINGTON — Railroads that move Bakken crude will be required to inform states how much oil moves through their borders under an emergency order published Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Citing the “pattern of releases and fires involving petroleum crude oil shipments originating from the Bakken” in the past year, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that railroads will need to provide county-by-county estimates on the number of trains hauling at least 1 million gallons of North Dakota crude each week.
Bakken crude was on board in a string of explosive accidents in the past year — most recently a May 1 derailment in Lynchburg, Va. — prompting concerns about rail safety, tank car standards and the volatility of the light, sweet oil.
With those accidents in mind, Foxx said shipments of Bakken crude by rail “constitute an imminent hazard.”
The DOT also released a safety advisory Wednesday urging shippers in the Bakken to stop using an older tank car model involved in several explosive incidents in the past year, including the deadly crash that killed 47 people in Quebec last summer and the Dec. 30 accident near Casselton, N.D.
Federal investigators have said for decades that those older cars — called DOT-111s — are vulnerable to punctures in derailments, but they remain the workhorse of the crude-by-rail fleet. Foxx’s call to halt their use comes a week after his agency submitted a set of new rules for tank cars to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The contents of that proposal, including whether it contains a mandated phase-out or retrofit of DOT-111s, won’t be made public for several months.
“The safety of our nation’s railroad system and the people who live along rail corridors is of paramount concern,” Foxx said in a statement. “All options are on the table when it comes to improving the safe transportation of crude oil, and today’s actions, the latest in a series that make up an expansive strategy, will ensure that communities are more informed and that companies are using the strongest possible tank cars.”
The emergency order affects all railroads that ship 1 million gallons —— about 35 cars — or more of Bakken crude. The mile-long trains hauling crude across North Dakota generally pull more than 100 cars of oil.
Effective immediately, those railroads will begin turning over crude-by-rail estimates to each state’s emergency manager. Minnesota’s Emergency Response Commission will receive the reports. In North Dakota, that information will head to the state Department of Emergency Services.
Department of Emergency Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong said it “seems like a good requirement” for the state to continue addressing concerns about rail safety and emergency preparedness. A representative from Minnesota’s emergency agency was not available for comment.
The Bakken’s booming oil production, combined with a lack of pipeline infrastructure, has pushed an unprecedented amount of crude onto the rails. Almost 800,000 barrels of crude left North Dakota on trains daily late last year — up from just 100,000 barrels daily in 2011, according to industry estimates.
But the state doesn’t have a firm handle on how much crude oil is moving by rail — those estimates are calculated by subtracting other transportation methods, like pipeline and truck, from total oil production.
BNSF Railway, which moves the bulk of the Bakken’s output, said in a statement that it has provided estimates on hazardous materials shipments to state and emergency response officials upon request. It’s unclear whether any North Dakota or Minnesota agencies have asked for those estimates.
“Providing states and first responders with the information they need to plan for potential events is an important first step” to ensure communities are safe, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement. “But, the DOT absolutely needs to further clarify to the oil and rail companies how to implement these steps, as I’m concerned that calls for action without clear guidelines won’t actually do much to improve safety.”
As federal regulators continue making safety steps and testing Bakken crude’s volatility, the North Dakota Petroleum Council said Wednesday that third-party contractors have collected 152 crude samples for a study the industry group is developing.
The samples, collected from well sites and rail facilities in the Williston Basin of North Dakota and Montana, will be analyzed by two national laboratories.
Results of the study will be provided to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Kari Cutting, vice president of the Petroleum Council, met with PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman last week to provide an update on the study and discuss developing best practices for crude oil testing and classification.
“We all have the common goal to understand Bakken crude characteristics to answer safety questions for all modes of transportation,” Cutting said in a statement.
Initial findings of the study will be presented May 20 during the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck by Jeff Hume, vice chairman of strategic growth initiatives for Continental Resources. The final report is expected in June.
Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.