WASHINGTON — Responding to a series of fiery train crashes, the government proposed rules Wednesday that would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars that carry increasing quantities of crude oil and other highly flammable liquids through America's towns and cities.
But many details were put off until later as regulators struggle to balance safety against the economic benefits of a fracking boom that has sharply increased U.S. oil production. Among the issues: What type of tank cars will replace those being phased out, how fast will they be allowed to travel and what kind of braking systems will they need?
Accident investigators have complained for decades that older tank cars, known as DOT-111s, are too easily punctured or ruptured, spilling their contents when derailed. Since 2008, there have been 10 significant derailments in the U.S. and Canada in which crude oil has spilled from ruptured tank cars, often igniting and resulting in huge fireballs. The worst was a runaway oil train that exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic a year ago, killing 47 people.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he said he expects his department to complete final regulations before the end of the year. First, the public and affected industries will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal.
"We are at the dawn of a promising time for energy production in this country," Foxx said. "This is a positive development for our economy and for energy independence, but the responsibilities attached to this production are very serious."
In a report released along with the rules, the Department of Transportation concluded that oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, where fracking methods have created an oil boom, is more volatile than is typical for light, sweet crudes.
The oil industry immediately challenged that conclusion. "The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks," said American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard. "DOT needs to get this right and make sure that its regulations are grounded in facts and sound science, not speculation."
Rail shipments of crude have skyrocketed from a few thousand carloads a decade ago to 434,000 carloads last year. The Bakken now produces over 1 million barrels per day, and production is increasing.
The phase-in period for replacing or retrofitting older tank cars that transport the most volatile types of liquids is shorter than the Canadian government's three-year phased plan. Congress, fearing another Lac-Megantic, has been pressuring regulators to put new safety rules in place as quickly as possible.
The proposal also includes ethanol, which is transported in the same kind of tank cars. From 2006 to 2012, there were seven train derailments in which tank cars carrying ethanol ruptured. Several crashes caused spectacular fires that emergency responders were powerless to put out.
The proposed regulations apply only to trains of 20 or more cars. Crude oil trains from the Bakken are typically 100 cars or more.
The department is weighing three options for replacements. One would be to make cars known as "1232s" the new standard for transporting hazardous liquids. Those cars are a stronger design voluntarily agreed to by the railroad, oil and ethanol industries in 2011. But those cars, which have been in use for several years, have also ruptured in several accidents.
The oil and ethanol industries have been urging White House and transportation officials to retain the 1232 design for new cars. The industries have billions of dollars invested in tens of thousands of tank cars that officials say were purchased with the expectation they would last for decades.
Another option is a design proposed by Association of American Railroads that has a thicker shell, an outer layer to protect from heat exposure, a "jacket" on top of that, and a better venting valve, among other changes. A third design proposed by the department is nearly identical to the one proposed by railroads, but it also has stronger fittings on the top of the car to prevent spillage during a rollover accident at a speed of 9 mph.
Regulators also are weighing whether to limit crude and ethanol trains to a maximum of 40 mph throughout the country, or just in "high-threat" urban areas or areas with populations greater than 100,000 people. A high-threat urban area is usually one or more cities surrounded by a 10-mile buffer zone.
Railroads had already voluntarily agreed to reduce oil train speeds to 40 mph in urban areas beginning July 1. Tank cars — including the newer ones built to a tougher safety standard — have ruptured in several accidents at speeds below 30 mph. Regulators said they're considering lowering the speed limit to 30 mph for trains that aren't equipped with advanced braking systems.
The freight railroad industry had met privately with department and White House officials to lobby for keeping the speed limit at 40 mph in urban areas rather than lowering it. Railroad officials say a 30 mph limit would tie up traffic across the country because other freight wouldn't be able to get past slower oil and ethanol trains.
The department said it is considering three types of braking systems for oil and ethanol trains, but a final decision will depend on what type of tank car design is eventually adopted.
Whatever option regulators settle on, the proposal calls for newly manufactured cars to meet that standard beginning Oct. 1, 2015.
The proposal continues a requirement that railroads transporting at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil notify emergency response commissions ahead of time in states they pass through. Communities from upstate New York to the coast of Washington have complained they're in the dark about when trains pass through and how much oil and ethanol they're transporting.