Regulators Discuss LNG-by-Rail Safety Concerns — After Approving New Rule To Allow Transporting LNG by Rail

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New regulations were announced by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in July 2020 allowing the transportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail.

That same month, PHMSA released the interim report for its LNG-by-rail task force. It concluded: “The task force did not identify any new safety gaps related to the transportation of LNG in tank cars.”

And yet, it stated, “PHMSA and FRA will continue to pursue research and testing efforts designed to reduce the risks inherent in LNG transportation and hazmat transportation more broadly.”

As part of that continued work, this month, PHMSA held public meetings with a committee from the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) to discuss the “Safe Transportation of Liquefied Natural Gas by Railroad Tank Car.”  (The NAS committee was announced a month before the new LNG-by-rail rule was finalized.) What’s more, earlier this year PHMSA stated that safety wasn’t a pretext for regulation. 

The LNG-by-rail regulation fast-tracked by the Trump administration was a gift to the gas and rail industries. The regulation was pushed through without proper safety considerations at a time when there isn’t even any current demand for the moving LNG by rail. The fact that a regulation to move such a dangerous material was approved six months before public meetings began to discuss if moving LNG by rail could be done safely indicates how broken the U.S. regulatory system is — and how it is failing to do its job of protecting the public.

But this is nothing new with PHMSA. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has been an advocating for new pipeline safety regulations from PHMSA for years. Her Congressional testimony on the matter includes her assessment of PHMSA and the U.S. regulatory system. 

The system is fundamentally broken,” Speier testified in 2015. “PHMSA is actually a toothless kitten, a fluffy industry pet that frightens absolutely no one.”

And the impacts are already being felt

A Derailed Train in Washington

The state of Washington issued regulations in 2019 that would limit the volatility of crude oil being transported by rail through the state. As DeSmog has reported, lowering the volatility of dangerous crude oil like the Bakken oil from North Dakota is necessary to remove the threats of these bomb trains.

To limit the volatility of the crude oil being produced in the Bakken region that is currently being shipped by rail to Washington refineries, oil producers would need to stabilize the oil by removing volatile natural gas liquids like propane and butane — something producers refuse to do because those natural gas liquids that make the oil more volatile and dangerous also make it more valuable to refineries. In 2019 Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s  Department of Mineral Resources, made it clear that to remove the volatile elements of the Bakken crude oil mixture would “devalue the crude oil immensely.”

In 2020, however, PHMSA overruled Washington and argued that it did so because “a State cannot use safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth.”

As a result, the dangerous trains continued to move volatile oil through Washington. In December, a train full of volatile Bakken crude oil was going seven miles per hour on a straight flat track in Custer, Washington. It derailed and the tank cars ruptured and spilled oil which immediately ignited in the middle of town.

As it has done with the dangerous practice of moving oil and ethanol by rail, by not requiring known safety improvements like modern ECP brakes for LNG trains, PHMSA is also effectively allowing the rail industry to volunteer to make any safety improvements instead of doing its job of regulating safety.

In 2019, the Department of Transportation (which oversees PHMSA) announced this approach of letting the rail indusry voluntarily improve safety while also working to remove existing regulations when it stated thatDOT’s approach to achieving safety improvements begins with a focus on removing unnecessary barriers and issuing voluntary guidance, rather than regulations that could stifle innovation.” 

Worst Case Scenarios Are Frightening

Any LNG rail accident in a populated area has the potential for catastrophic consequences. Earthjustice, one of the groups that is suing to overturn the LNG-by-rail regulation, put the risk in perspective: “It would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb. A train of 110 tank cars filled with liquefied natural gas would have five times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb.”

PHMSA’s analysis expects that if trains carrying LNG derail, they will fail and release LNG. For a train traveling 40mph, the estimate is for six cars to be punctured. Using the Earthjustice example, that would release roughly one quarter of the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb.

Chart: PHMSA task force estimates for LNG train derailments.    Source: PHMSA Worst Case Scenario Modeling

Another slide summarizes what first responders should do in case of an LNG accident.

Image: First Responder Actions for LNG Fires.  Source: PHMSA Worst Case Scenario Modeling

According to PHMSA, LNG fires are “difficult to deal with” and “cannot be quenched.”  This means there is no effective emergency first response to an LNG fire — which is also true for oil train fires. The recommended emergency response is to evacuate people and let the fires burn. Rail safety expert Fred Millar explained the reality of emergency response to oil train fires at the Oil Train Response 2015 conference. “Emergency response is a distraction from what we have to do,” Millar said. “We need not be polite to the rail roads … and the state and local officials who keep pretending that they can be prepared.” 

PHMSA Meetings Show Lack of Rail Safety Concern

In the public virtual meeting on January 14 one exchange summed up how PHMSA is failing to protect the public by using misleading industry talking points.

Anay Luketa, a principal member of the technical staff of the Fire Science and Technology Department at Sandia National Laboratories and part of the NAS committee on LNG-by-rail, asked Bob Starin, PHMSA Division Chief for Risk, Data, and Program Management the following question: “So very generally, what is the most impactful factor in your opinion in preventing accidents?”

It’s training. I think that without a doubt human factors are the largest contributor to incidents and accidents,” Starin responded. “I’m not sure you would get a different answer from anyone. If there is a different sentiment, again, I welcome the additional information.”

DeSmog asked Millar if he agreed with Starin’s conclusions. “Emphatically no,” Millar responded via email.

The number of major derailments since 2013 involving oil and ethanol trains that have resulted in spills and fires supports Millar’s view. Broken rails are the leading cause of train derailments and yet regulations to address the issue of track wear have been successfully fought by the rail industry for decades.

A 2014 oil train derailment and fire in Lynchburg, Virginia, was due to track failure. A major oil train derailment and fire in West Virginia in 2015 was caused by track failure. The same was true for the oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Oregon, in 2016 as well as for a major oil train derailment in Montana in 2015. Two Canadian oil train derailments in 2015 led to a Wall Street Journal headline stating, “Track May Have Played Role in Canadian Oil-Train Derailments.”  Two more recent oil train derailments and fires in Canada in 2019 and 2020 were caused by track failures in sections of tracks known to be in disrepair. And a derailment and spill in Iowa in 2018 was because the rail company chose to run the loaded oil train on flooded tracks.

There is plenty of evidence that running long trains of hazardous materials that are also heavier than most trains are experiencing derailments due to track failures.

An argument could be made that these accidents were due to human error as these are choices made by management not to adequately maintain tracks — but the reality is that isn’t an error by management — but a choice which managers will likely continue to make unless regulations force compliance. The rail companies, however, have successfully fought any regulations on track wear.

DeSmog spoke to Ron Kamikow, a locomotive engineer and general secretary of Rail Workers United, who criticized the idea that training and human factors are the biggest contributor to accidents. “Proper training is essential,” Kamikow explained. But, he added, “to just say with proper training everything will be ok is … it’s just absurd.”

There are many ways to improve the safety of moving hazardous materials by rail, and well trained and well rested operators are a critical part of safety. However, for a panel addressing the issue of how to improve the safety of moving LNG by rail to say this is the most impactful factor in improving safety is to ignore the many safety concerns with moving flammable materials by rail.

Repealing LNG-by-Rail Could Take Years

The good news for public safety is that while the former Trump administration fast-tracked this gift to the rail and LNG industries — the LNG-by-rail regulations process took little over a year compared to the typical multi-year timeline — there currently is little demand for moving LNG by rail. 

At the end of the recent two-day session on LNG-by-rail safety, PHMSA‘s Starin noted that at the present time there are “zero” DOT-113 tank cars transporting LNG in America. DOT-113s are the model of the tank car that has been approved for moving LNG (the same tank cars PHMSA predicts will puncture in derailments as shown in the slide above).

If there is any positive thing to say about the regulatory process allowing LNG-by-rail it is that discussions of safety and risks are happening before a major deadly accident — which was how the discussion about the dangers of moving oil by rail began. 

In December 2019, the National Transportation Saftey Board offered a clear warning about approving LNG-by-rail regulations as proposed by PHMSA, stating, “we believe the risks of catastrophic LNG releases in accidents is too great not to have operational controls in place before large blocks of tank cars and unit trains proliferate.”

In contrast, the public learned about the risk of moving volatile Bakken crude oil by rail when a train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 and the resulting catastrophe resulted in the death of 47 people and the destruction of much of the downtown area. It was only after this incident that PHMSA even began to consider regulating this dangerous practice; a process that took years and ultimately did little to improve safety.

One regulation requiring modern brakes on oil trains was repealed in 2017PHMSA has not recommended modern braking systems be used in LNG-by-rail because according to PHMSA, “Costs far exceeded business and safety benefits.” As DeSmog has repeatedly documented, and this author explains in detail in Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk, there is a large body of reasearch proving modern electronically controlled pneumatic brake systems (ECP) are a major safety improvement and likely pay for themselves in savings in operating costs.

The braking systems currently used on these trains are based on technology invented in the 1800s which led to former Federal Railroad Adminstrator Sarah Feinberg referring to them as a “Civil War-era braking system.”

In 2016, Feinberg explained the simple reason why the rail industry refuses to invest in modern braking systems for trains moving hazardous materials through populated areas. “The science is there, the data is there,” Feinberg said. “Their argument is, despite that data, [they] don’t want to spend the money on it.”

The oil and train industries have successfully fought regulations to improve safety with moving oil and ethanol by rail, and are now doing the same with dangerous LNG

At least with LNG-by-rail, public meetings, environmental lawsuits, and politicians voicing their opinion are giving the public and policymakers a chance to learn about the risk before a catastrophic accident. And unlike with the Bakken oil boom, there is little demand to move LNG by rail now, and there are very few of the DOT-113 tank cars available even if there was demand. The industry will have to invest in building out that fleet of DOT-113 tank cars if it wants to start moving LNG by rail in large quanitities — something that there isn’t much incentive to do right now as the U.S. natural gas and LNG industry is in financial trouble.

In the meantime, it is likely there will be efforts by politicians and activists to repeal the LNG-by-rail regulation — which was opposed by 16 state attorneys general before it was approved. E&E News also reported that the Biden adminstration has plans to review the regulation. 

However, since the regulation was approved in July it can’t be simply be repealed by Congress (an option only for more recent regulations). Hana Vizcarra of Harvard’s Environmental and Energy Law Program, which has been tracking regulatory rollbacks during the Trump adminstration, explained to DeSmog that Congress will not be able to use the Congressional Review Act to undo the LNG-by-rail regulation and thus it would require going through a whole new regulatory process. If the Biden administration moves forward with such an approach, Vizcarra expects they would ask the courts to not move forward with current legal challenges to the regulation until the process is complete, which could take years.

The threat of a potential repeal is likely to dampen industry investment in building a fleet of new DOT-113 tank cars, which could effectively protect the public from this risk until a repeal of the regulation.

Meanwhile, the former rail executives who were leading PHMSA during the Trump administration have resigned as part of the transition. If the new PHMSA administration takes the “Safety” part of its name into consideration — something that has been missing for four years — the LNG-by-rail regulation, as the environmental groups’ lawsuit argues, must be repealed.

“Absolutely the Biden adminstration should take a very close look at reconsidering this rule in light of the overwhelming safety concerns,” Bradly Marshall, staff attorney for Earthjustice told DeSmog. Summing up the main reason why LNG-by-rail should not be allowed based on PHMSA‘s worst case scenarios, Marshall said: “You are looking at a tremendous amount of energy that could destroy a very big area.” 

Main Image:  Burning train cars in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec Credit:  Bureau de la sécurité des transports du CanadaCC BYNCND 2.0

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Justin Mikulka is a research fellow at New Consensus. Prior to joining New Consensus in October 2021, Justin reported for DeSmog, where he began in 2014. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

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