After a frack job is complete, can we be certain that the energy industry is taking care to ship the oil as safely as possible? Two United States senators are gently questioning that as a series of crude oil train explosions have made the news.
On December 30, a crude oil train operated by Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. derailed in North Dakota, causing an explosion that forced 2,000 people to evacuate.
Just one week later, a Canadian National Railway train carrying propane and crude oil derailed in New Brunswick, catching fire and forcing 45 homes to evacuate.
Those explosions follow a deadly crude-by-train blast in Canada last year that killed 47 people. In another accident, a freight train exploded in Alabama last November and spilled an "unknown amount of crude oil" into nearby marshland.
Now Senators John Rockefeller IV and Ron Wyden (who represent West Virginia and Oregon, respectively) are putting pressure on transportation and energy regulators to investigate crude-by-rail accidents and to enforce regulations that already exist.
"The recent derailments and accidents involving crude oil are alarming and demand increased vigilance," the senators have written in an open letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
The shale oil boom in Texas wouldn't be possible without rail. More popular than pipelines, freight trains carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil each day to refineries across the country. Texas' state-owned South Orient Rail line saw a 2,214 percent increase in crude oil car shipments between 2011 and 2012.
The energy industry, which owns the actual tank cars on the trains, argues that crude-by-rail accidents are the inevitable result of an increase in crude-by-rail shipments. Which is probably true. But there are still steps the industry can take to reduce the severity of those accidents when they do happen.
The Association of American Railroads, for instance, has been saying for awhile that most tank cars carrying flammable liquids are too old to safely be doing so and need to be retrofitted, as we reported last week.
Now, Senators Rockefeller and Wyden are pointing to a few other factors that may be causing explosions. They indirectly accuse the oil industry -- without actually calling out the industry -- of improperly labeling the oil it loads into tank cars. There is "growing concern," the senators say, that "some oil shipments are improperly classified under federal hazardous material standards, leaving rail companies and emergency responders with incomplete information about what is being shipped through communities."
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The senators also, in the nicest way possible, urge U.S. regulators to do their jobs better. "We encourage the Department of Transportation to finalize rules" so that it can finally carry out a rail safety program "that was signed into law six years ago."
Here is the senators' letter in full: