WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Senate on Wednesday held the first congressional hearing focused solely on the safety of transporting crude oil by rail — an issue that hardly existed a decade ago and which reached Washington state only in 2012.
The hearing, chaired by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington, was prompted by a recent spate of oil-train accidents that have followed a resurgent domestic production driven by the Bakken shale oil and gas boom.
Deadliest of those was a driverless train carrying North Dakota Bakken crude that derailed last July in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, some 10 miles from the nearest Maine border. The explosion killed 47 people, several of whom are believed to have been vaporized.
The specter of other such disasters dominated the hearing, held by Murray’s Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.
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The concern is particularly acute in Washington, which has the nation’s seventh-largest petroleum-refining capacity and is the closest destination for both Canadian and Bakken crude oil.
Nearly 17 million barrels of oil arrived in the state by train in 2013. That accounted for just 8 percent of the total, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. But rail shipments are expected to triple this year to 55 million barrels.
In her opening statement, Murray also referred to a derailment in Aliceville, Ala., last November and a collision in December in Casselton, N.D., between an oil train and a train carrying soybeans. Those explosions caused no injuries or deaths.
Murray noted rail transport of crude oil has grown to levels unforeseen even a few years ago. Advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a controversial technique also known as fracking, have made it economically feasible to extract oil and gas embedded in shale rocks.
North Dakota’s Bakken formation has helped it become the nation’s second-largest oil-production state after Texas. But there are no major pipelines moving crude to the West Coast from North Dakota and other states east of the Rockies.
Three of Washington’s five refineries — U.S. Oil in Tacoma, Tesoro Anacortes and BP Cherry Point near Ferndale — are receiving Bakken crude, all by rail. A fourth, Phillips 66 in Ferndale, is scheduled to begin refining Bakken crude starting in the fourth quarter of this year.
That new landscape, Murray said, has safety implications.
“Federal oversight must adapt to these rapid changes in domestic energy production,” she said. “We need to have the right policies in place to prevent accidents and respond to emergencies when they do happen.”
One witness, Barb Graff, director of the city of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management, testified that rail yards for Seattle’s two major freight carriers, BNSF and Union Pacific, are atop areas that could become liquefied in an earthquake.
The train tracks also pass near Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field and through neighborhoods vulnerable to landslides.
The oil from Bakken shale rocks is thought to be especially flammable and can ignite at normal temperatures with static, spark and other sources. What’s more, emergency-management personnel lack real-time information about the volume and exact contents of tanker cars carrying petroleum.
Graff said an average of three petroleum trains passes though Seattle per week. But several proposed expansions of refineries and unloading facilities within the state could increase the frequency of trains in Seattle to three per day.
The rail routes in Seattle run north-south. The oil trains stretch a mile long with 80 or more cars, and can hold up traffic for several minutes.
Murray pressed Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on his department’s progress on testing the Bakken crude’s volatility, the results of which could dictate regulations on train speeds and other safety rules. Foxx said his agency is making progress, but he did not offer a deadline.
Foxx gave a similarly indefinite response to a question by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, about when federal regulators would issue tougher standards for new tank cars and for retrofitting existing ones.
Crude oil and ethanol now are transported on so-called DOT-111 tank cars, a type of nonpressurized vessels used for corn syrup and other edible commodities as well as hazardous materials.
More expensive puncture-resistant pressure cars are required for toxic materials such as chlorine and liquefied petroleum.
Foxx said he could not divulge details about any revisions to tank-car standards but said his department was taking a comprehensive approach “to get the answer right.”
“My target date is as soon as possible,” he said.
“That’s a frustrating answer,” Collins replied.
For the foreseeable future, an increasing share of the oil coming into the state likely will arrive by rail.
In 2013, oil coming through ports by vessel — mainly from Alaska, where production has been declining — accounted for 67 percent of the 203 million barrels received in the state.
Some 24 percent was carried through the state’s sole crude-oil pipeline, Canada’s Kinder Morgan Transmountain Pipeline. The remainder came by rail, which first began in Washington in 2012.
The majority of that crude oil is refined in the state into gasoline, diesel and other products before being moved elsewhere by vessel, rail or truck.
The United States has banned exports of most domestic crude oil since the 1970s.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong