WASHINGTON -- Spurred by a series of fiery train crashes, a push by government and industry to make safer tank cars used for shipping crude oil and ethanol has bogged down in squabbling and finger-pointing over whether they're needed and if so, who should pay.
The Transportation Department, worried about the potential for catastrophic accidents involving oil and ethanol trains that are sometimes as many as 100 cars long, is drafting new tank-car regulations aimed at making the cars less likely to spill their contents in the event of a crash. But final rules aren't expected until late this year at the earliest, and it is common for such government rulemaking to drag on for years.
But one safety official said urgent action is needed.
The Obama administration needs to take steps immediately to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents even if it means using emergency authority, Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Wednesday.
"We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly," she told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day forum the board held on the rail transport of oil and ethanol. "There is a very high risk here that hasn't been addressed."
The freight railroad industry proposed tougher tank-car standards last fall, and recently upped its proposal another notch. The government and the Association of American Railroads say oil being shipped from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana may be more volatile than previously thought.
But oil companies -- which own or lease the tank cars, and would have to bear much of the cost of tougher standards -- want to stick to voluntary standards agreed to by both industries three years ago unless it can be shown that new standards are needed, American Petroleum Institute officials said. The railroads, they say, are refusing to share the "scientific basis" for their proposal.
The petroleum institute wants "a comprehensive examination" of changes proposed by the rail industry, including whatever computer-modeling was used to support tougher standards so that it can be peer-reviewed, said Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the institute. "So far, no data has been provided," he said.
The railroads are "pulling this out of thin air," said Eric Wohlschlegel, another petroleum institute official.
The government, however, says it's the oil industry that's not sharing its data. Transportation Department officials complained recently that the agency had received only limited data from a few oil companies on the safety characteristics of Bakken oil, despite requests made in January by Secretary Anthony Foxx. Hundreds of oil producers, shippers, and brokers operate in the region.
So far, only seven oil companies have responded, and several of those provided only sparse information, Foxx said in an interview. The government wants to know what is in the oil so regulators can decide what types of protections are needed for shipping, he said.
"One of the most fundamental questions that cuts across everything in crude oil by rail is how it is classified," Foxx said. "If it is not classified correctly at the beginning, then it is not packaged correctly and the emergency response needs aren't understood by the communities through which this material is moving."
The oil industry is using every tank car available to keep up with the exponential growth in Bakken oil production since hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," made it possible to extract more oil from the ground. Freight railroads transported 434,032 carloads of crude in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008. Three years ago, the U.S. became a net exporter of petroleum products for the first time since 1949. Ethanol production has also escalated dramatically, creating competition for available rail cars. About 69,000 carloads of ethanol were shipped on rails in 2005. Last year, it was about 325,000 carloads.
In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Rail and safety officials said they were surprised by the ferocity of the fire. They were used to dealing with sludge-like crude that doesn't ignite easily, but Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3 million gallons of light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was more comparable to gasoline.
There have been eight significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to a presentation by crash investigators at a two-day National Transportation Safety Board forum this week on the transport of crude oil and ethanol. Most of the accidents occurred in lightly populated areas, although one derailment and fire in December occurred less than two miles from the town of Casselton, N.D.
Railroads can't be sure what they're hauling, said Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of the rail association. Given that uncertainty, he said, they want oil shipped in tank cars with thicker shells like those required for chemicals that form toxic vapor clouds when released.
Regulators who have tested some Bakken oil samples on their own warned emergency responders and the public in January that it could be more dangerous than many conventional types of crude. But petroleum institute officials say they don't believe Bakken crude is significantly different than other light crudes, such as those from Texas.
Transportation officials are now "assessing whether or not we will need to take additional steps to gather the information we requested" from oil companies, according to a government statement provided to The Associated Press.
Thousands of older tank cars that predate the voluntary standards adopted three years ago may also have to be discontinued for oil transport, Fronczak said. Canadian authorities announced Wednesday that they will require a three-year phase out or retrofit of older cars like the ones that ruptured in Lac-Megantic. But oil industry consultant Lee Johnson, testifying for the petroleum institute, told the safety board that U.S. oil companies need the "flexibility" to continue to use the older cars, and any decision on retrofits should be "data-driven."
Of course, if the railroad industry were to do a better job of fixing broken and substandard track, a major cause of accidents, or installing positive train control, a technology designed to reduce human error and prevent the most catastrophic kinds of collisions, there might be fewer crashes, Christopher Barkan, executive director of the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois, told the board.