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Monday, May 22, 2017

Schneiderman petitions Trump administration on crude oil transportation

All WNY News     Monday, May 22, 2017    

PRESS RELEASE



NEW YORK - Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, leading a coalition of six state Attorneys General, is urging the Trump Administration to immediately close a loophole that allows highly flammable, highly explosive crude oil to be shipped by rail through communities in New York and across the country. These so-called "bomb trains" are responsible for several catastrophic rail accidents in recent years, including the 2013 explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people; in New York alone, these trains cover roughly 700 miles of the state.

In comments filed in response to an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the coalition calls on the agency to take immediate steps to require that all crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. achieve a vapor pressure – a key driver of the oil's explosiveness and flammability– of less than 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi). The comments were filed by the Attorneys General of New York, California, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, and Washington

Click here to read the comments filed by the Attorneys General.

"Because of a regulatory loophole, these trains can carry crude oil through some of our most densely populated areas without any limit on explosiveness or flammability – creating ticking time bombs that jeopardize the safety of countless New Yorkers and Americans," said Attorney General Schneiderman. "It's time for the federal government to put New Yorkers' safety first and take immediate action to close this dangerous and nonsensical loophole."

In December 2015, Attorney General Schneiderman filed a petition for rulemaking with PHMSA to set the national limit on vapor pressure of crude oil transported by rail at less than 9.0 psi . In December 2016, specifically citing the Attorney General's petition, the agency announced that it would issue an ANPRM in order to gather public comment on vapor pressure limits and the safety benefits of utilizing such a limit in regulating the transport of crude oil and other dangerous materials.

Accidents of trains carrying crude oil have resulted in devastating explosions and uncontrollable fires – including the 2016 train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, where the resulting fire caused the evacuation of nearly one-quarter of the town's residents, and the infamous 2013 Lac-M├ęgantic, Quebec accident, where a derailed train burst into flames, destroyed the downtown area, and killed 47 people.  Despite the catastrophic impacts that these and other rail accidents have had on communities, currently there is no federal limit on the vapor pressure of crude oil transported by rail. In the comments filed with PHMSA on Friday, the Attorneys General argue that reducing crude oil vapor pressures to levels below 9.0 psi is not only practical, but is necessary for minimizing the explosion and fire danger involved in transporting crude oil by rail.

The Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 requires PHMSA and the federal Department of Energy to report the results of a multi-year study conducted by Sandia National Laboratories to assess the volatility of crude oil and make recommendations on improving the safety of its transport. The completion of this study and the development of accompanying recommendations may take years. For this reason, the coalition is urging PHMSA to recognize the substantial present danger that oil trains pose to communities by taking immediate action to set a vapor pressure standard less than 9.0 psi until a final standard is promulgated.  

It has been reported that up to 44 "unit trains" – chains of 70 to 120 tank cars – travel on rail routes that bisect New York each week, each carrying from 2 to 3.5 million gallons of crude oil.  These trains cover approximately 700 miles of the state, passing through small communities as well as the heart of population centers such as Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Plattsburgh, Saratoga Springs, Albany, Kingston, and Newburgh, and within a few miles of New York City.  An oil train accident along these routes of the size and intensity of those seen in Quebec and other locations, could endanger the safety of thousands of New Yorkers who live, work, travel, and recreate along the trains' paths.

Vapor pressure is a key contributor to crude oil's explosiveness and flammability.  Crude oils with the highest vapor pressures – such as those produced from the Bakken Shale formations in North Dakota – have the highest concentrations of propane, butane, ethane, and other highly volatile gases.  While the vapor pressure of the crude oil involved in train accidents is frequently not disclosed, in the limited number of instances it is known – including the Mosier (Oregon) and La-M├ęgantic (Quebec) accidents – vapor pressures have exceeded 9.0 psi.

PHMSA's stated mission is to protect people and the environment from the risks associated with the transportation of hazardous materials, including crude oil.  In July 2015, in response to concerns raised by rail accidents involving crude oil shipments, the agency adopted a new rule that sought to enhance the structural integrity of train cars that ship crude oil, and lessen the chances of train derailments.  Although the new rule imposed new regulations on the design and operation of train cars, it did nothing to increase the safety of the highly combustible liquids carried by these cars.  Because of this, under federal law, crude oil can still be shipped through some of New York's most densely populated communities without any limit on its explosiveness or flammability.

According to the Association of American Railroads, crude oil shipments by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 493,126 carloads in 2014, representing an increase of over 5,000 percent.  While rail shipments of crude oil have dipped somewhat in recent years, rail is expected to continue to be an important mode of transporting the resource in the future, particularly as crude oil prices and total U.S. production rebound as expected. 

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