It’s no secret that the oil and rail industries lobbied the Obama Administration heavily during the creation of new oil-by-rail regulations released this past May, with lobbyists reportedly not even taking a break the day after a major oil train accident.
But just how much influence did lobbyists actually have in the drafting of the regulations?
Environmentalists who criticize the new rules as far too weak to stop business-as-usual — which has already resulted in five oil train explosions so far this year — are endeavoring to find out by submitting Freedom of Information Act requests for correspondence between lobbyists and five federal agencies within the US Department of Transportation that worked on the oil train safety rules.
So far, they say, they’ve been stonewalled by the Obama Administration.
The FOIA requests were originally filed in January by La Crosse, WI’s Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, Communities for a Better Environment, Albany, NY’s Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association and ForestEthics. The rules came out on May 1.
The groups were seeking all records of communications exchanged between lobbyists and staff at the Federal Railroad Administration, the Surface Transportation Board, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Office of the Secretary of Transportation since January 1, 2012.
Some 97 individual lobbyists were named in the requests, among them representatives from trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads as well as oil and rail companies including Chevron, Tesoro, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).
Six former members of the US Congress, including Trent Lott, Vin Weber, John Breaux, Steve LaTourette, Max Sandlin and Bill Lipinski, are also among the lobbyists named in the requests.
Under FOIA regulations, the federal agencies had a deadline of 30 days to respond, with an optional ten-day extension. Yet only two agencies have responded so far, the Surface Transportation Board and the National Transportation Safety Board — both of which are advisory bodies, as opposed to the regulatory agencies that are tasked with actually writing the rules.
“Can’t think of another reason why they wouldn’t take common-sense, immediate measures”
ForestEthics filed appeals with the remaining three agencies in March, well after they’d already missed the deadline. On May 19, the Office of the Secretary of Transportation’s general council granted the appeal and ordered the agency’s FOIA official to schedule the release of the documents. But two months later, no documents have been released.
The acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration granted another of the appeals on July 27, but no timeline for the release of those documents has been proposed.
DeSmog has previously uncovered White House meeting logs that show the oil and rail industries had privileged access to key administration personnel.
“The whole point of this is to try and get to the bottom of what influence these lobbyists had on the final regulations, which we’ve said repeatedly are inadequate to protect health and safety,” Ross Hammond of ForestEthics told DeSmogBlog. “The fact that they’ve been dragging their heels on it for such a long time tells me they’re trying to hide something.”
Hammond added that he “can’t think of another reason why they wouldn’t take common-sense, immediate measures to protect Americans from dangerous oil trains, except that they’ve been heavily influenced by the oil and rail lobbies.”
The phase-out of dangerous DOT-111 train cars, Hammond says, is a good example of how the rules are inadequate. The National Transportation Safety Board first raised concerns about using unjacketed DOT-111 tank cars to transport flammable products like volatile crude oil in 1991, but the new rules allow them to stay on the rails until 2018.
Most of the crashes in the US so far this year have involved “safer” cars, known as CPC-1232s.
Ten “higher consequence” oil train accidents within the next 20 years
The documents that have been released by the advisory agencies reveal enough cause for significant concern, Hammond says. There are chummy emails between NTSB board members and the CEO of the Association of American Railroads, for instance, as well as multiple instances of “shameless self-promotion” by the oil and rail industry.
One of the talking points that ForestEthics found repeated in many materials was that “oil trains are 99.997% safe, but one accident is too many.” It was used several times, Hammond explained, pointing to an American Petroleum Institute presentation from April 23, 2014 as an example.
“This is the same phrasing that [Transportation] Secretary [Anthony] Foxx used in the press conference announcing the final tanker car rules on May 1,” Hammon adds.
ForestEthics also found in the documents that the Department of Transportation predicts 10 “higher consequence” oil train accidents within the next 20 years, and that PHMSA considers $1.2 billion in damages to be a “somewhat conservative” measure of the damages that could be caused by a higher consequence event.
“The fact that our request has been stonewalled for so long suggests that there is something that they don’t want the public to know, which strengthens our resolve to pursue the information,” Hammond said.
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