Four States, Led by New York, Challenge Trump Admin Over Oil Train Safety Rule

View article in its entirety at DeSmog.

— Author: Justin Mikulka

On October 23, New York Attorney General Letitia James, joined by attorneys general from Maryland, New Jersey, and California, sent a letter of support to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) over a Washington state law that would limit the volatility of oil transported by train through the state.

That oil originates in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana, where trains help take the place of scarce pipelines in order to move fracked crude oil to Washington’s refineries and ports along the coast. North Dakota and Montana have fought back against Washington’s law, which was passed in May, and filed a petition to PHMSA in protest just two months later.

Spurred by safety concerns about oil trains derailing and exploding, the Washington law would cap the vapor pressure of crude oil moved by rail at 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi) and would be triggered by a rise in oil train traffic in the state.

States vs. Feds

Part of the argument made by North Dakota and Montana is that the Washington regulation should be pre-empted by federal regulation, which is in a state of limbo, on limiting the volatility of oil train cargo. That approach effectively says the federal government has no need to regulate the vapor pressure of oil transported by rail.

As DeSmog has documented, federal regulators recently issued just such a pre-emptive order, which they claim invalidates state safety regulations requiring two-person crews to operate freight trains. The Federal Railroad Administration spelled out this approach, saying it would focus on removing “unnecessary barriers” (regulations) and instead give “voluntary guidance” on safety improvements to railroads and oil companies.

The debate over limiting vapor pressure of oil being transported by rail — which would make the flammable oil less volatile and less likely to ignite in rail accidents — has been ongoing since the devastating 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, rail disaster that killed 47.

In 2015, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx wanted to create national regulations limiting the vapor pressure of oil moved by rail, but as Reuters reported at the time, his efforts fell apart:

“The Obama administration weighed national standards to control explosive gas in oil trains last year but rejected the move, deciding instead to leave new rules to North Dakota, where much of the fuel originates.”

A freedom of information request filed by DeSmog revealed that the Obama administration did not, in fact, leave creating new rules to North Dakota but actually worked with state regulators there on a standard allowing oil vapor pressure up to 13.7 psi, a level well above most of the oil leaving North Dakota by rail.

That same year, then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman petitioned PHMSA for a national vapor pressure standard of 9.0 psi. (New York state has also been a major East Coast hub for oil trains.) That effort resulted in a proposed rule from PHMSA during the last days of the Obama administration.

While PHMSA has not yet acted on this proposed regulation, based on the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) previous actions under Trump, this DOT agency likely will withdraw the national vapor pressure regulation and, as with the two-person crew rule, claim that the federal action pre-empts Washington state law on the issue.

To read more about debating the established science, North Dakota’s flawed arguments, and the coming legal battle, visit DeSmog.


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