How did it get missed for the last ten years?”
That was the question Deborah Hersman, chair of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), posed to a panel of industry representatives back in April about how the rail industry had missed the fact that Bakken oil is more explosive than traditional crude oil.
“How do we move to an environment where commodities are classified in the right containers from the get go and not just put in until we figure out that there’s a problem,” Hersman asked.
The first panelist to respond was Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of environmental and hazardous materials for the Association of American Railroads (AAR). “We’ve know about this long before Lac-Megantic and that is why we initiated the tank car committee activity and passed CPC-1232 in 2011,” Fronczak replied, “To ask why the standards are the way they are, you’d have to ask DOT that.”
So, now as the new oil-by-rail safety regulations have been sent from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, it seems like a good time to review Hersman’s questions.
How did we miss this? Is there a process to properly classify commodities for the right container before they are ever shipped?
Fronczak stated that industry knew about the explosive danger of Bakken crude long before the
Lac-Megantic disaster, but it was up to the Department of Transportation to do something about it. That begs the question: what did the department know?
In a letter sent by Thomas J. Herrmann of the Federal Railroad Administration (a division of DOT) to the American Petroleum Institute’s CEO Jack Gerard on July 29, 2013, just 23 days after the Lac-Megantic disaster, it would appear the DOT was well aware of Bakken crude classification issues.
The letter goes into detail on several issues with Bakken crude and recommends “shippers evaluate their processes for testing, classifying, and packaging the crude oil that they offer into transportation via railroad tank cars.”
So it is clear that as of July 2013, the Federal Railroad Administration was well aware of issues regarding classification of Bakken crude oil based on its own audits.
Greg Saxton, chief engineer for tank car manufacturer Greenbrier Companies, said: “The crude we are moving today, we think its different than what we were moving five or ten years ago.”
If the exploding trains weren’t enough to convince people that the Bakken crude oil is different, those comments should remove any doubt.
On the eve of new regulations, the fundamental question of how to properly sample and test Bakken crude oil for appropriate classification has not been answered. And the only group currently working on an “industry standard” for this is the American Petroleum Institute, which has already concluded that Bakken crude is no different from other crude oils — at the same time API is having private meetings at the White House regarding the new regulations.
Chair Hersman resigned shortly after the forum in April, ending her 10-year career with the NTSB. At the time she told the AP she had, “seen a lot of difficulty when it comes to safety rules being implemented if we don’t have a high enough body count. That is a tombstone mentality. We know the steps that will prevent or mitigate these accidents. What is missing is the will to require people to do so.”
If the current process regarding new oil-by-rail regulations in the U.S. is any indication, apparently we haven’t achieved a high enough body count yet.