Labor groups led lobbying blitz on oil-by-rail rule

Published: May 6, 2015

oil-train-railDuring the past two months, more than a dozen oil and rail industry groups jockeyed for attention as Obama administration officials put the finishing touches on a major crude-by-rail safety rule.

But as firms such as Exxon Mobil Corp., Hess Corp. and CSX Corp. led one last lobbying blitz, several environmentalist and labor organizations paid their first visits to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) as it weighed the final regulations.

John Risch, national legislative director for the SMART union’s transportation division, said his group’s March 30 meeting at OIRA stemmed from a desire to do “something different” about the oil safety rule, which touches on everything from train speed to tank car design. OIRA is a small but influential part of the Office of Management and Budget that analyzes the costs and benefits of a given rule before it goes public.

“I saw actually a press clip that the railroads had met with [OIRA] and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m missing a step here,’ so I requested to meet with them,” Risch said, noting that SMART-TD had filed comments on an earlier draft of the crude-by-rail rule in addition to working with the Federal Railroad Administration.

Earlier in the month, representatives from the environmental group Earthjustice sat down with OIRA to call for a ban on the oldest, least crash-worthy type DOT-111 tank cars still used to haul thousands of barrels of crude across the country each day. Other organizations present at the March 13 meeting included ForestEthics, Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, all of which have voiced concerns about a string of recent oil train derailments and explosions.

Earthjustice again met with OIRA on April 15, just two weeks before the release of the final rule.

“We’re starting to see more and more people get engaged on this rule because these tank cars are rolling through towns and communities across the country,” said Jessica Ennis, a senior legislative representative with Earthjustice who lobbies on a range of topics important to the organization. “Every time there’s another explosion, more people are realizing that carrying crude oil by rail is actually very dangerous.”

The new Department of Transportation rule aims to make that process less dangerous by toughening new tank car standards and requiring shippers to update older cars on a 10-year time frame. The rule also caps oil and ethanol trains’ speed limits at 40 mph through most big cities and 50 mph elsewhere.

Environmentalist groups have been largely critical of the final rule, noting that it applies only to trains with 20 or more tank cars and follows a too-leisurely phaseout schedule.

Brakes added

Risch of SMART-TD is more satisfied with the rule.

At the meeting he called for in March, Risch pushed transportation regulators to make railroads add electronically controlled pneumatic brakes — a technology the North Dakota native hailed as “the greatest safety enhancement I witnessed in my 30-year career as a locomotive engineer.”

The final rule would require trains carrying 70 or more cars of the most flammable kinds of crude to use ECP brakes by 2021 or face a 30 mph speed limit, with other “high-hazard flammable unit trains” following suit by 2023.

The rail, oil and tank car industries had fought an ECP braking mandate as expensive and unnecessary, with Ed Hamberger, head of the Association of American Railroads, calling their requirement a “rash rush to judgment” on the part of DOT.

Risch acknowledged that the shift to ECP technology would come at a cost but called DOT’s 2021 initial deadline a “reasonable approach.”

“It’s not radical like it’s being portrayed,” he said.

Green groups led by Earthjustice had hoped for faster and broader application of ECP brakes, which government analyses said would reduce the severity of oil train accidents by up to 36 percent compared to regular braking systems.

Environmentalists had also sought to draw attention to the towns affected by the DOT rulemaking, with Ennis of Earthjustice helping schedule a conference call between Obama administration officials and council members from several cities.

“I think these meetings are extremely important, especially with local elected officials — they’re closest to where these accidents can happen across the country,” Ennis noted. “They have a unique, on-the-ground perspective on this that’s very important for the DOT to hear.”

Shannon Williamson, a City Council member in Sandpoint, Idaho, participated in the April 15 conference call with OIRA and called the conversation an “absolutely critical opportunity.”

Sandpoint is a hub for westbound crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale play, where the bulk of the nation’s oil-by-rail shipments originate. Oil train traffic rose from about 15 oil trains per week to 23 in the span of a year, said Williamson, who is also executive director of the environmental nonprofit Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper.

She added that her town is about the same size as Lac-MĂ©gantic, Quebec, where a 72-car train hauling Bakken crude derailed and exploded in July 2013, killing 47 people.

That disaster set into motion the rulemaking unveiled Friday, which was a joint effort between U.S. and Canadian regulators.

“The oil industry had lobbyists in the administrative offices practically every single day during this whole rulemaking,” Williamson said. “The people who are going to be impacted by oil-by-rail transport are not being adequately represented — or they weren’t.”

This story was written by Blake Sobczak and originally appeared on EnergyWire and was reposted with permission from Sobczak.