The Bakken area is one of the largest crude oil producing regions in the United States. The recent surge of production in the Bakken region is due to the increased use of hydraulic fracturing to access oil and gas from the tight oil formations. Crude oil production is creeping back up to peak levels reached in 1970. Since the recent oil boom has accelerated quickly and in new areas of the US, existing infrastructure has had to process unprecedented loads of crude out of the Bakken across the US to refineries. With existing pipelines in and around the Bakken area at full capacity much of the crude is transported across the country by rail. Recent rail crashes, spills, and explosions indicate the need for rail infrastructure improvements to protect the environment and public safety.
Last year, Canada’s tragic rail crash and explosion brought the topic of crude oil transport to the forefront with many groups from a variety of industries debating whether pipeline or rail is better. This week in Virginia, a train of 12-14 tank cars derailed in the city of Lynchburg spilling crude oil into James River, ultimately affecting Chesapeake Bay. The Canadian agency tasked with regulating railways announced new regulations this week to phase out the most dangerous tank cars in the next three years.
The Federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) sets federal regulations related to tank cars in the United States. According to the Association of American Railroads, the rail industry has petitioned PHMSA to require more stringent tank car requirements for cars transporting hazardous materials like crude oil since 2011. The lengthy rule making process requires a number of steps including public comment periods. DOT plans to send a new rulemaking package on rail car standards to the White House soon. Once reviewed, the new rules will be published in the Federal Register and open for public comments for 60 days. The new rules are expected to include updating the design of tank cars, reducing speed of oil cars, and requiring safer routes for oil cars.