Oil-by-rail protests planned to mark Canadian disaster

WASHINGTON — A new interactive online map of rail routes shows how oil is rumbling across the nation’s train tracks, as federal regulators consider new requirements for tank cars carrying the crude and opponents plan vigils commemorating last year’s devastating derailment in Canada.

Oil Change International, a group that encourages a move from fossil fuels to other energy sources, debuted the interactive map on Wednesday, ahead of protests planned around the July 6 anniversary of the derailment that killed nearly four dozen people and destroyed downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

In a rainbow of colors, it shows the flood of oil being transported by trains from North Dakota, West Texas and other states to rail terminals and refineries in the Northeast and along the Gulf Coast.

In a related report, the group makes the case that the oil traffic — increasingly filling the void from non-existent or already-full pipelines — is surging beyond the reach of regulators.

“This analysis shows just how out of control the oil industry is in North America today,” said the report’s author and Oil Change International’s research director, Lorne Stockman. “Regulators are unable to keep up with the industry’s expansion-at-any-cost mentality, and public safety is playing second fiddle to industry profits.”

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Regulators have joined the oil industry, railroads and rail car manufactures in scrutinizing the issue following the Lac-Megantic disaster and other accidents involving rail tankers holding crude.

The Department of Transportation is on track to formally propose new tank car mandates in July, after sending its draft to the White House Office of Management and Budget for a required review in late April. Although details of that measure have not been disclosed, it may contain requirements for thicker hulls, insulating “jackets,” more robust head shields at the end of the tanks and other changes designed to make them more resilient in a crash.

The proposed safeguards may codify or build on tank car changes the rail industry adopted voluntarily in October 2011.

Related story: Oil tank cars draw scrutiny

Oil industry leaders have been urging regulators to approach the issue holistically and devote significant attention to preventing accidents in the first place — not just beefing up tank cars in case of one. The American Petroleum Institute also has warned that some of the proposed tank car changes may offer only illusory benefits. Making hulls thicker could add some modest resiliency, they say, but at the cost of putting more tankers on the tracks, since each car could carry less product.

Representatives from Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute met with administration officials to discuss the coming rules on May 19.

In the meantime, residents along train tracks and rail terminals are raising concerns about the oil cars rumbling by their homes, schools and businesses. Some of the biggest backlash has come near the Port of Albany, N.Y., where crude is moved from trains to barges, and local leaders have responded by blocking an existing port facility’s planned expansion.

Stockman said communities are “waking up to the dangers of oil trains barreling through their backyards” to the roughly 230 crude-by-rail terminals in Canada and the United States that are already in operation, are under construction or are planned.

The planned protests and vigils nationwide from July 6-13 will capitalize on the fears.

Organizers, including environmental groups Sierra Club and 350.org, say the events will mark the solemn one-year anniversary of the Lac-Megantic derailment and insist that no method of transporting oil is worth the risk.