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Oil and Gas Accidents Could be Reduced

NTSB Says Tanker Car Upgrades Would Limit Consequences of Fires and Explosions

An April 6 article in the Longview News-Journal reported on the deficiencies of the tank cars currently being used in Texas and across the United States to transport oil and ethanol. Safety standards in the industry for petroleum transport are voluntary. However, in the wake of several recent explosions, the federal agency that oversees train safety has issued some recommendations.

Recommends Safety Improvements in Oil and Gas Tank Cars

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would like to see tank cars carrying certain petroleum products retro-fitted with protective systems that would withstand fire more effectively. Right now, the tank car industry is adhering to a ten-year timeline for retrofitting the rail cars; the NTSB says this is too long and improving safety should be a more urgent priority.

Not all oil and gas train cars lack the ceramic thermal blankets that would keep a tank car from exploding if a nearby car should catch fire. Cars used to transport liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) have these blankets. The NTSB would like to see these blankets installed on all oil and gas tank cars.

The NTSB also recommended another safety measure that would prevent pressure building in the tank cars up because of proximity to nearby fires. The installation of relief valves to lower internal pressure would prevent additional explosions and fires.

In 2011, the tank car industry voluntarily began requiring more robust cars for transporting oil and ethanol. However, the new cars have exploded at least four times in the past twelve months. These incidents included oil trains that recently derailed and burned in Illinois and West Virginia.

The alternative to retrofitting the tank cars would be to significantly reduce the speed of trains carry flammable liquids, according to the NTSB.

Increase in Use of Railroad Tank Cars, But Who is Responsible for Safety?

Although every state, including Texas, has seen a big increase in the amount of oil and gas extracted from the ground, the big jump in the use of railroad tank cars has been spurred by the shale oil boom in North Dakota and Montana. The number of tank cars carrying petroleum products is expected to hit 115,000 by the end of this year.

This fleet is not necessarily owned by the railroads that carry the cars, but by the producers that ship their products. This makes establishing safety regulations more complex; neither the railroads nor the oil and gas industry wish to pay for safety improvements such as thermal “blankets.” A railroad trade group, the Association of American Railroads has said that current tank cars should be phased out or retrofitted to improve safety. However, the Railway Supply Institute, an association of tank car users and manufacturers, has stated that they have already spent a huge amount – reportedly $7 billion – in voluntary safety improvements.

Clearly, preventing oil and gas accidents is not straightforward because safety measures are largely voluntary.

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