Feds unveil proposed new safety rules for crude-carrying trains

Tank cars that carry crude oil across the United States would have to meet stringent new standards to improve safety and make them more resilient in an accident under proposed new rules unveiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday.

The proposals call for phasing out rupture-prone cars built before October 2011 for the shipment of flammable liquids, including ethanol and  crude oil, unless those cars are retrofitted to meet sweeping new design standards that could include thicker shells, better brakes and rollover protection.

The proposed tougher standards would alter the way high-hazard flammable substances such as crude and ethanol are shipped across the country at a time of massive growth in crude transport by rail. Last year, 415,000 rail-carloads of crude moved across the U.S. compared to 9,500 rail-carloads in 2008, according to the transportation department.

Canadian regulators proposed similar mandates after a fiery 2013 derailment killed 47 people and leveled a rural Quebec town.

The oil industry has fretted that strict mandates would hamper crude transport and possibly discourage production, particularly in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, which lacks enough pipeline to carry crude pumped there to market.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement Wednesday that the proposals represent the department’s “most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

The transportation department singled out Bakken crude oil in a separate study released Wednesday that found the crude oil tends to be more volatile and flammable than others. That’s worrisome as the volume of Bakken crude shipped throughout the U.S. dramatically increased in the past six years and the product tends to travel long distances, on average more than 1,000 miles, from North Dakota to refineries on the Gulf Coast, according to the Transportation Department.

The train that derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec was carrying Bakken crude.

The proposed oil train rules, developed after a public response period that drew more than 150,000 comments, call for the department to permanently adopt its May emergency order requiring carriers to notify state emergency response agencies when trains carrying 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil run through their states.

The mandates also attempt to enhance the safety of trains hauling oil and other flammable liquids by lowering their speed limits to 40 mph and requiring carriers to perform safety and security assessments considering 27 different factors before selecting a route.

The public has 60 days to comment on the proposal.