The United States is churning out more crude oil than it has in nearly three decades. And with pipeline capacity in short supply, producers are turning to America's rail system to move black gold from the plains of North Dakota and Alberta, Canada to refineries mostly along the East Coast.
But that's proven to be a dangerous — and sometimes deadly — endeavor.
The number of oil tanker spills in the US reached 141 in 2014, more than five times the annual average for the past three decades, according to data compiled by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation (DOT). And a fiery explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013 that killed 47 people highlighted the extraordinary volatility of North American crude oil, which has a much lower threshold for ignition than other types of petroleum products.
As the number of spills and explosions has ticked up, pressure from public safety officials, environmentalists, and local, state, and federal politicians has led the DOT to roll out new oil-by-rail safety regulations, which were released on Friday after months of contentious review and public comment.
"The truth is that 99.9 percent of these shipments reach their destination safely," DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a press conference announcing the new regulations. "The accidents involving crude and ethanol that have occurred, though, have shown us that 99.9 percent isn't enough. We have to strive for perfection."
'I think the response is grotesque and not adequate to the task.'
Despite Foxx's quest for flawlessness, the rules have been roundly criticized from all sides as lacking in solid analysis of the costs involved in upgrading oil-by-rail standards and the risks that remain even after the department has imposed its most stringent upgrades to date.
Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute, said the DOT remains out of touch with the risks of transporting hazardous materials by rail, often through densely populated areas.
"I keep hoping that we're going to at some point enter a world where we have a rational regulatory response to a clear and present danger, like oil trains," de Place told VICE News. "Instead, we get these incredibly frustrating responses like we got from the DOT on Friday. I think the response is grotesque and not adequate to the task."
The new rules will cost the industry $2.5 billion over the next two decades, according to DOT estimates.
The American Association of Railroads (AAR) said companies plan to spend $29 billion this year in safety improvements to train cars and tracks, in addition to the $575 billion they've spent over the last 30 years. In a statement, AAR said it was "disappointed" in several core elements of the department's rule and, in one instance, the agency had "no substantial evidence" to support its regulation.
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The new rules set a schedule for retrofitting or phasing out old tank car models called DOT-111s that have proven the most accident-prone. These models must be upgraded by early 2018. Newer model cars known as CPC-1232s can continue to transport crude until either 2020 or 2025, depending on whether they have a protective outer layer known as a jacket.
The department also set a 50-mile-per-hour speed limit for transporting oil by rail, lowering it to 40 mph when trains pass through the country's most densely populated urban areas.
But recent history shows that these safety improvements fail to eliminate the risk of explosion.
In February a CSX-owned oil train derailed and exploded in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. Several cars tumbled into the Kanahwa River, forcing two downstream water treatment plants to shut down. The tankers were the newer CPC-1232s and the train was moving at 33 miles per hour. Residents were forced to evacuate at the fire burned for several days.
Documents obtained by the Associated Press show that the DOT predicts oil trains could derail an average of 10 times a year over the next 20 years, causing $4.5 billion in damage and unknown potential fatalities.
While environmental groups and public safety advocates point to the fact that derailments and explosions have occurred even with newer model tanker cars, the industry has grievances of its own.
The department is requiring companies to equip their cars with a type of braking system known as ECP, or electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, which DOT found could reduce the number of spills by 36 percent. Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for AAR, disputes the department's finding.
"ECP brakes do not significantly improve safety and have proven to be unreliable," Greenberg told VICE News. "No justified safety case for ECP brakes has been made and ECP brakes will not prevent accidents."
But companies have until 2021 to comply with the new brake requirement. And that approach, says de Place, reveals how DOT is putting the public at continued risk.
"There is no other industry in America that can get away with this kind of bullshit," de Place told VICE News. "What they should have done, what they could have done legally, is exactly what they would do with an airplane or car: take them off the rails, stop running them."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro