Oil tanker phaseout could last years

WASHINGTON — Oil companies and railroads appear to be moving to phase out older, rupture-prone tank cars on a faster timeline than U.S. regulators are envisioning.

Regulations drafted by the Transportation Department to boost the safety of moving oil by rail are believed to lay out a six-year timeline for scrapping those older, legacy tanker cars, which have been tied to recent, fiery explosions.

But railroads and the oil industry have reportedly advanced a voluntary plan to replace them within three years. The approach, laid out by the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads in meetings with federal regulators considering the new mandates, was first reported by Bloomberg.

“Industry is being very aggressive,” observed Brigham McCown, a former head of the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “It’s probably much faster than the government anticipated, as far as the ability to remove these tank cars.”

Immediate action: Groups seek ban on oil in older tank cars

Any turnover would involve the removal and replacement of thousands of DOT-111A cars built before October 2011, when the rail industry voluntarily adopted changes to make them more resilient. There already is a backlog for new tank cars, as some oil companies and other shippers move to swiftly update their own fleets.

Canadian rail regulators are giving the industry three years to remove the older tank cars, following the July 6, 2013 derailment that killed nearly four dozen people and destroyed downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Neither API nor the Association of American Railroads responded to requests for comment. But the railroads group — along with at least five individual companies — met privately with federal regulators to air their views on June 10.

Any industry-advanced plan to move more swiftly could come with caveats — such as being contingent on manufacturers’ ability to roll out new models or even being pegged to certain designs.

The Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing the Transportation Department’s plan to enhance standards for the tank cars that carry crude and bolster operational controls for trains heaving high-hazard, flammable substances. Transportation officials have said they aim to propose the new rules by the end of the year.

Although details of that measure have not been disclosed, it is likely to dovetail with a railroad association plan 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.

One open question is whether regulators will require tanks to have a hull thickness of 9/16 inch, 1/2 inch or some other level thicker than the 7/16 inch thickness of the current DOT-111s.

Oil interests have noted that thicker hulls would mean each tanker would carry less product, ultimately putting more of them on the tracks.

Influence game: Special interests shape railroad safety rules

Railroads typically do not own the cars, which instead are owned or leased by the oil refiners and other companies shipping the product inside them.

Operational changes considered by the Transportation Department could include codifying speed limits for trains heaving flammable oil, perhaps lower than the 40 miles per hour cap now observed in some areas. There also could be new limits on leaving oil-carrying trains unattended, which was at the root of the problem in Lac-Megantic.

Oil companies are increasingly turning to rail as a way to get crude from wells in North Dakota to refineries in New Brunswick, Canada, and the Gulf Coast, largely because there aren’t pipelines traveling the same routes. The surge in oil production in North Dakota has caused explosive growth in the amount of crude-by-rail traffic; there were about 400,000 tank carloads of oil in 2013, up from just 9,500 five years earlier.

McCown said the drafted regulations now under interagency review at the Office of Management and Budget are unlikely to force would-be oil shippers to first run the crude through stabilizers that remove the lightest, most volatile gases _ thus making it less flammable and safer to ship. Only one such stabilizer has been built in North Dakota, according to a Wall Street Journal report earlier this month.

He also anticipates Transportation officials are taking a closer look at the integrity of tracks and rail crossings and examining what factors may have helped drive down the rate of accidents involving tank cars carrying ethanol. Accidents involving ethanol trains in 2006 and 2009 helped shine a spotlight on tank car deficiencies.

Oil industry leaders have previously encouraged a “holistic” approach to rail safety, where the resiliency of tank cars is just one of many considerations.