For Immediate Release, February 26, 2013

Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Congress Treads Carefully as Oil Train Concerns Heat Up

Industry Continues to Down-play Safety Risks Despite String of Explosions

WASHINGTON— The House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials held a hearing today acknowledging mounting safety concerns surrounding the sudden increase in transport of highly explosive crude oil by rail, but failed to push for a ban on unsafe tanker cars or greater transparency about when and where the oil is being transported.

In the wake of several fiery accidents, including an oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people, the Center for Biological Diversity has called for a moratorium on crude-by-rail shipments in the Northeast and asked Congress to investigate the mounting threats to people and the environment.

“Right now the reality is that tens of thousands of thin-walled tanker cars laden with this highly flammable oil are still rumbling through towns and cities across the United States, and the oil industry is looking to further expand its rail operations,” said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the Center. “Americans who face this risk every day have a right to immediate safety improvements and greater transparency, not vague promises of incremental, voluntary changes.”

In recent weeks the oil and rail industries and federal government have announced various voluntary measures, including improving the labeling of crude oil cargos, increasing the number of sturdier, more leak-resistant tanker cars in use, and expanding the rail industry’s emergency response planning, in response to public concern over the increasing number of derailments and oil spills in the last year. 

A Wall Street Journal analysis of North Dakota “Bakken” oil published earlier this week underscored the unprecedented dangers posed by this growing form of oil transportation. In a study of 86 different crude oils from around the world, North Dakota crude, from a geologic formation referred to as Bakken shale, contained several times more combustible gases than other oils tested.

At the same time, controversial Alberta tar sands oil is also increasingly being transported in the United States by rail. Though not explosive, this heavy form of crude is extremely difficult and expensive to clean up when spilled, especially when dumped into waterways.

Said Matteson: “These incidents make clear that there is no ‘safe’ way to transport oil, whether by rail, pipeline, ship or other means, and even if there were, burning more and more oil will only worsen the climate crisis we’re facing.” 

The hearing, in the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee’s railroad and hazardous materials subpanel, marked Congress’ formal entrance into the intensifying debate over train transport of crude oil. The volume of crude oil shipped by rail in the United States increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013 — a more than 40-fold expansion.

Proposals to expand or build new rail terminal facilities for crude oil have popped up around the country as the oil industry looks for additional ways to ship its product, whether to North American refineries, or in the case of tar sands oil, to foreign markets. These projects, including current rail terminal proposals in California’s Bay Area,  Albany, N.Y., and Vancouver, Wash., have prompted public outcry over safety issues, environmental justice concerns, spill potential, impacts on local habitats and wildlife, and climate change.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 675,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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