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Are tighter rules for crude oil trains chugging along too slowly?

July 23, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
More than a million barrels of oil travel the country by rail each day. In response to deadly derailments, the Obama administration proposed tougher safety rules for trains carrying oil, sometimes called “pipelines on wheels.” Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the proposal, criticism from activists, pushback from the oil industry and the safety of air travel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama administration proposed new and tougher safety rules today for railway trains carrying oil, trains sometimes referred to as a pipeline on wheels. They come after some tragic derailments and at a time when more than a million barrels of oil a day are traveling across the country by rail.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: On July 6 of last year, at 1:15 in the morning, the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic was rocked by a powerful explosion. A runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude oil had careened into the community and derailed. The blast and ensuing fire destroyed dozens of buildings and killed 47 people.

The train carried Bakken oil, a highly flammable crude from western North Dakota, where production has surged, along with rail shipments. Overall, the number of tanker cars carrying oil in the U.S. soared from 10,000 in 2008 to more than 400,000 last year.

DON MORRISON, Dakota Resource Council: They didn’t look down the road to figure out, how are we going to get this to market in a safe way?

JEFFREY BROWN: Don Morrison Of the Dakota Resource Council spoke to the NewsHour last May.

DON MORRISON: We’re going through, going through people, right next to people’s houses and businesses. It’s dangerous. And they have got to be careful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now the Department of Transportation is proposing new regulations for oil trains. They would include the phase-out or retrofit of thousands of older tank cars within two years; improved braking systems; and testing corn-based ethanol and crude oil for flammability prior to transportation.

The goal is to prevent the kinds of accidents seen from Lynchburg, Virginia, to Casselton, North Dakota, over the last 18 months, though none was as deadly or destructive as Lac-Megantic. For the record, the Casselton incident involve the rail company BNSF, a major carrier of oil and an underwriter of the NewsHour.

Still, industry representatives, like Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, insist the transportation of oil by rail is sound.

RON NESS, North Dakota Petroleum Council: Safety is certainly the number one aspect that I think all aspects of the transportation industry are focused on. And at 99.7 percent of the time, you know, rail movements get to their destination safely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Supporters of the long-delayed Keystone pipeline project, to carry Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico, say that it would ease the need for oil trains. Environmental groups counter that it poses its own threats.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced the proposed rules today, and he joins me now.

Welcome to you.

ANTHONY FOXX, Secretary of Transportation: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, help people understand the situation as you see it. How serious a health and public safety issue is it, especially for these towns where trains are running through?

ANTHONY FOXX: Well, we have to remember that our oil production in this country is growing exponentially.

And, in fact, crude by rail shipments have increased from 2008, with 9,500 car loads, to more than 415,000 car loads, a 4,000 percent increase. We don’t see that abating any time soon. The production is going to increase. Our safety standards have to increase with it. And that’s why we promulgated — at least proposed the rule today.

JEFFREY BROWN: The criticism that came immediately is that you’re moving in the right direction, but much too slowly.

I want to put up a graphic we got from Earthjustice, one of the activist groups. It says your proposals “show extreme unacceptable risk posed by outdated and accident-prone type of railcar, the DOT-111. The department’s proposal delays reducing the risk by keeping these outdated accident-prone cars on the rails for at least three to six more years.”

So, the question, why wait so long if it’s so dangerous?

ANTHONY FOXX: Well, look, let’s first of all say that we’re trying to push the rule out as quickly as possible.

We have a 60-day comment period. And folks who have criticisms or improvements they’d like to see to the rule, we’re inviting them to use the comment period. But to the particular question you asked, the reality is, is that we have a market that has, at best, a third of new tank cars in it today.

And so to transition the market, it’s going to take some time just from a practical standpoint. We want to have the right standard set for the new tank car. And that’s what we’re proposing, is to have alternatives to improve the tank car standard. But this is also a comprehensive rule. It deals with speed. It deals with other aspects of this issue, so that we can ensure the safety of American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re getting pressure from the industry not to move too fast because of the expense of changing those cars or retrofitting those cars?

ANTHONY FOXX: We are again using the comment period to hear from industry. But we’re not going to be bound by what we hear from industry.

We’re going to do the right thing for safety in America. And whatever that is, is where our final rules is going to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, one really interesting issue of this is the particular oil involved. Now, you’re sounds as though your department decided that — concluded that Bakken oil is actually particularly volatile and less safe and more combustible than other kinds of oils.


One of the things that we’re noticing in this situation is that, in the Bakken region, there is rudimentary separation occurring before it goes into tank cars. In other parts of the country where there’s more of a history of refining, there’s refining infrastructure around it.

But in the Bakken, that generally is not the case. And what the tank cars are doing is moving that material out to the refining areas on the East and West Coasts. So the challenge we have is that we have a relatively unstable substance that is moving long distances in sometimes hundreds of cars at a time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here, you got pushback from the oil industry. I will put up a graphic that we got from the American Petroleum Institute.

“The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater-than-normal transportation risk.”

And they’re calling on you to make sure you get your science right. Do you feel like you have your science right?

ANTHONY FOXX: Yes, I do. So, we actually — so we have some folks saying we’re moving too slow, some people saying we’re moving too fast. We’re probably in the right place.

We are going to look forward to the comment period and listen to what folks have to say about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the issue of the speed? Because that’s something you are still looking at. There’s a question of a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit, which I gather now the railroads have accepted within urban areas.

But the question is whether you should expand that countrywide.

ANTHONY FOXX: Yes, the question is, do we have a 40-mile limit totally, everywhere? Do we have a 40-mile limit around certain parts, given population differences?

Do we have it just in urban areas? That type of challenge is not just a challenge that’s inherent to this issue of crude by rail. There also is an issue of what it does to other commodities, grains, rail — moved by rail, corn products moved by rail.

And so, again, this is a place where we will listen to input from a variety of stakeholders and work to craft the rule accordingly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how do you decide something like that? Is it based on the new cars or the brake — because all these things are tied together, right?

ANTHONY FOXX: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re also calling for a new kind of braking system or at least looking at the system.

ANTHONY FOXX: The complexity of this cannot be understated. It is very complex. And we actually need a comprehensive approach, which is why our rule takes into account all of those factors.

As we get comments in, we are going to take a look at those comments. But I believe that you are going to see a rule that’s going to have several components to it, the tank car standard, the speed standard, and other pieces, including breaking and other things that you mentioned before.

JEFFREY BROWN: The larger issue seems to me is where you started. We have seen this huge increase in the production.

So, the question is, is the balance out of order, right, the balance of the increase in production vs. maintaining the safety and our ability to transport this?


Well, the reality is, is that things have changed. This increased production, these trains are now moving, as I said before, in some cases 100 unit trains at a time. And it’s — unit cars at a time. And we’re going to have to deal with this new reality by stepping up our safety standards.

And this rule is promulgated — going to be promulgated to focus on not only where we are, but where we’re likely be in the future. And we want to make sure we hit the target with this rule.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you know there has been a lot — especially in a lot of local communities, been a lot of protests, a lot of worry about this.

ANTHONY FOXX: Yes. I’m very well aware. We have heard from members of Congress. We have heard from mayors. We have heard from community members all over the country and even into Canada.

We understand the importance of this issue. That’s why we have worked to get this rule out and have a public comment period. And we will move it as quickly as we can.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, just in our last time together, while I have you here, I want to ask you about another thing that is — another transportation issue on people’s minds, and that’s air transportation.

We had what happened in the Ukraine. We have U.S. flights not going into Israel. Jet travel nowadays, should people be worried in a new way?

ANTHONY FOXX: Well, I think what people should be reassured by is the fact our FAA is working very closely with our intelligence community and with the international community to understand the risks of traveling.

And when we believe that the risks are substantial enough, we have issued NOTAMs that prohibit U.S. carriers from flying into certain territories. So, we will continue to monitor situations as they occur, and, hopefully, folks will feel safe as they fly.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you do believe that’s the situation into Israel right now, even though the Israeli government, we heard earlier on the program, is — says that’s not the case?

ANTHONY FOXX: Well, we are using the intelligence we have.

Again, we’re working with all our international partners in situations where we have active NOTAMs. But we will continue to monitor the situation in Israel, as well as elsewhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anthony Foxx, transportation secretary, thank you so much.

ANTHONY FOXX: Thank you.