In recent years, there has been an increase in the amount of crude oil that is transported across the United States by rail. Normally, cargo trains are a safe, cost effective way to move goods, but they aren’t immune to accidents. Unfortunately, when those accidents involve trains carrying crude oil, they often have disastrous results for local communities and ecosystems.
The problem is that the tanker cars that carry the crude are prone to puncture during rail accidents, and some 25 million Americans live within what is known as the oil train blast zone. Recently, the U.S. Transportation Department issued new rules to help reduce the danger of such accidents, but seven environmental groups have sued the administration, stating that the rules don’t do enough to protect the public.
At the core of their complaint are new rules for phasing out older tanker cars. Cars that predate 2011 must be phased out in three years, while newer cars have until 2020. The problem is that these are the very tanker car designs that are prone to puncture. They are suing to force the administration to develop shorter phase out guidelines.
Meanwhile, transportation and energy officials claim that the existing phase-out guidelines are already too strict. The American Petroleum Institute is also suing over the guidelines, but their concerns aren’t environmental. They estimate that the cost to replace or retrofit the existing tanker cars will run as much as $2.5 billion over the next two decades. They want to see a longer timetable, but they also want to relax regulations on electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, which are a new upgraded system designed to replace the air brakes that most freight trains have. Such systems would allow for more responsive breaking, especially on long freight trains, like the kind that move crude oil across the country.