By Katherine McFate and Robert Weissman, Co-Chairs, Coalition for Sensible Safeguards
“Four years is too long.”
That was the conclusion of U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, at an April 14 hearing on oil train safety standards. New rules for oil trains have been in development since 2011. Since 2010, 401 fiery oil train derailments and explosions have occurred in the United States.
Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, explained the byzantine realities of federal rulemaking at the hearing:
“We do not have the freedom to simply conceive of a new safety regulation and allow it to become the law of the land. The regulatory actions we issue must be borne out of a robust dialogue with all stakeholders, the public and industry, and a rigorous economic analysis that considers both the benefits to safety and the cost to industry.”
[The system is] “not built for speed,” she concluded.
What an understatement. Developing a new rule now regularly takes years – and in some cases, it can take a rule more than a decade to move through the multiple stages of analysis and review that have been put in place.
Contrary to the rhetoric, this is not the result of a process-loving bureaucracy. Rather, past Congresses and more specifically, Republican Congresses, have made the rulemaking process increasingly complex and duplicative. This is part of an ongoing strategy to delay, block and roll back public health and safety standards opposed by their big corporate donors.
Over the past few months, the House Majority has voted repeatedly for legislation that would effectively prevent the oil train rule and other new regulations from ever being implemented. The three most recent examples include:
The Regulatory Accountability Act (H.R. 185) – a more accurate title would be the “Regulatory Paralysis Act” – would add 74 new procedural requirements to the rulemaking process and would force agencies to choose the health and safety standard least costly to big business – rather than a standard that would best protect the public.
The Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act (H.R. 527) would require agencies to consider the “indirect effects” of new rules without defining that term – forcing officials to conduct multiple cost-benefit analyses that are extremely speculative at best.
The Unfunded Mandates and Information Transparency Act (H.R. 50) would force agencies to give industry interests advance notice of proposed rules before the public learns of them, multiplying the opportunities for industry lobbyists and lawyers to overturn health and safety rules in court.
Last week, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee marked up and voted for even more regulatory roadblock bills in anticipation of floor votes in the months ahead. If even one of these bills were already the law of the land, new safeguards for oil trains would be all but impossible to establish.
In the meantime, more lives will be at risk. Last year, trains carried over 370 million barrels of oil through cities and towns across America. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimates that without the new rule, we could see 10 significant oil train accidents over the next 20 years, resulting in almost 700 fatalities.
Four years is too long? Let us hope the public will remember the breathtaking hypocrisy of politicians who excoriate public officials for regulatory delays while voting for legislation that dramatically increases the roadblocks they face in finalizing and enforcing new rules.