Oil leader cautions against creating new rail risks

WASHINGTON — The oil industry’s leading trade group on Friday praised railroads’ plans to boost the safety of hauling crude across the country, but cautioned against other changes that could create new risks.

“There’s a lot of things we can do, but we’ve got to keep our eyes focused on the objective, and that is to improve safety to get to zero incidents,” said American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard, in an interview. “We’ve got to make sure we’re focused in that narrow band like a laser beam, and not on chasing other issues that may not have any positive impact on safety.”

Under a deal reached between the Transportation Department and the Association of American Railroads, oil trains carrying at least 3 million gallons of crude will slow down near big cities in an effort to reduce the risk of potentially devastating derailments. The group also pledged more inspections of thousands of miles of tracks increasingly being used to ferry oil from North Dakota and other states to Gulf Coast and Canadian refineries.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said the voluntary agreement spurred by recent accidents in Philadelphia, North Dakota and Canada was “a positive step forward.” But, he added: “We’ll have to look closely now and see what does that actually do to advance safety, and how does it complement the other components that are being worked on.”

For the oil industry, lower speeds could remove one of the main advantages of moving crude by rail, which generally costs more than pipelines.

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in January asked API and the railroads group to strategize ways to boost rail safety, focusing on preventing accidents in the first place, mitigating the damage from them and responding to the emergencies.

Some oil industry leaders are wary of possible new mandates for more robust tankers, after DOT-111 cars made before 2011 were deemed prone to rupture.

Gerard suggested that mandates for new tankers with thicker walls and ends could create new dangers, because each car would hold less product and more tankers would be needed to haul the same amount of crude.

“If you continue to allow the cars to derail, then you really haven’t resolved the safety consideration,” Gerard said. “You’ve just dealt with part of it — mitigation — without addressing the fundamental cause, or the root cause, which is the derailment in the first place.”

Gerard insisted a “holistic” approach was needed to boosting rail safety.

“We need to make sure we’re not just moving the risk up and down the transportation chain,” he said.