Sustained Outrage

Obama rule includes oil-train secrecy

Oil Train Rules

In this Feb. 17, 2015 file photo, crew members walk near the scene of a train derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va.   (AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

 As another community — this one in North Dakota — deals with the aftermath of a crude oil train derailment and fire, it’s worth looking back at the recent announcement of the Obama administration’s new rules aimed at preventing these incidents.

As Curtis Tate at McClatchy explained, there are a lot of questions about the administration’s approach:

… It is far from the final word on efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic derailments, such as the one that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, nearly two years ago. And industry and environmental groups are bracing for a court fight over portions of the new regulations that they don’t like.

Most of the current tank car fleet that doesn’t meet the new requirements will be allowed to carry ethanol and some types of crude oil for eight more years. Environmental groups and some lawmakers objected Friday to the extended timeline.

It will be two years before the Energy and Transportation departments complete a study on the properties of crude oil and how they affect the way it reacts in derailments. While the rail industry supports the new tank car standard, it opposes the requirement for an electronic braking system on certain trains.

Also important, though, is another report from Curtis Tate, which detailed how the Obama administration — despite its claims to be transparent with the public and the press — has buried a major secrecy provision in this new rule.

Anthony Foxx, Lisa Raitt

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Canada’s Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt, participate in a news conference at the Transportation Department in Washington, Friday, May 1, 2015, to announce that rail tank cars that are used to transport most crude oil and many other flammable liquids will have to be built to stronger standards to reduce the risk of catastrophic train crash and fire.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

As Curtis reported:

Details about rail shipments of crude oil and ethanol will be made exempt from public disclosure undernew regulations announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday.

The department will end its requirement, put in place a year ago, that required railroads to share information about large volumes of Bakken crude oil with state officials.

Instead, railroads will share information directly with emergency responders, but it will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and state public records laws, the way other hazardous materials such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia are currently protected.

We’ve covered in the Gazette how the Tomblin administration has gone along with railroad insistence on secrecy on this issue (see here and here). As Curtis explained:

… On page 242 of the 395-page final rule the department published on Friday, it appeared that the railroads got their wish.

Starting next year, emergency responders will have access to information about shipments of all types of crude oil, not just Bakken, ethanol and other flammable liquids. The volume threshold will also be lowered to 20 or more cars of flammable liquid in a continuous block, or 35 or more cars dispersed throughout a train.

The shipments, however, will be classified as “security sensitive” and details about them shielded from the public.

“Under this approach,” the regulation states, “the transportation of crude oil by rail can…avoid the negative security and business implications of widespread public disclosure of routing and volume data.”