Hostility to Basic Safeguards Perpetuates Oil Trains Crisis, Jeopardizes Public Safety
Systemic Industry Attacks on Regulations Contributed to Weak Oil Train Rule, Would Undermine Workplace Safety, Wall Street Reforms, Clean Air Act and More
EDITORIAL BOARD ALERT | July 8, 2015
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Oil trains represent a clear and present danger to communities across North America. With oil train derailments and explosions occurring every few months, we need better safeguards. Higher standards for these “bombs on wheels” could save lives and prevent millions of dollars in damage. But those safeguards won’t happen if oil industry trade associations and lobbyists continue to systematically attack new and existing public protections, the rulemaking process that produces them and the federal agencies that enforce them.
When industry interests are able to undermine existing public protections and block new rules, we can expect public safety disasters like exploding oil trains. The need for stronger oil train safeguards is obvious, but they won’t become a reality as long as industry and congressional attacks on our system of public protections continue.
Please call on members of Congress to support stronger oil train safeguards and stop the attacks on our system of public health and safety protections.
A Growing Danger and the Inadequate Federal Response
Over the past several months, oil companies – including Shell, Marathon and ConocoPhillips – have quietly deposited tens of millions of dollars into a $345 million fund for victims of the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. In that tragedy, a train loaded with 72 cars of volatile oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale region derailed, killing 47 people in the fiery aftermath. Since then, the U.S. has averaged about 130 oil train incidents per year.
The reason for Big Oil’s discreet settlement is the tacit acknowledgement that Bakken crude’s greater volatility increases the danger of transporting oil by rail, turning otherwise benign derailments into devastating firebombs. But one wouldn’t know that by reading a recent rule issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in response to the oil trains crisis.
The DOT’s rule fails to establish a federal volatility standard to ensure that transported oil is safe. It also allows oil to be carried in unsafe, accident-prone train cars for another five years, and it fails to require advance notice to communities about the movement of oil trains through their neighborhoods.
This insufficient standard is the result of a rulemaking process that gives industry far too many opportunities to influence regulators and water down and challenge needed safeguards. Exactly how has the current process interfered with meaningful oil train safeguards?
- By requiring regulators to prioritize the costs to the rail and oil industries over the benefits to the public – even when doing so might contradict the agency’s mission and directly endanger public safety;
- By adding obstacles (additional studies, legal challenges) that delayed the new oil train rule for years;
- By perpetuating interstate commerce rules rigged to protect industry secrecy over the public’s right to know about oil train risks in their own backyards; and
- By signaling to staff at federal agencies that new safeguards are not really wanted and will be challenged in court.
These kinds of attacks on all manner of standards and safeguards appear to be escalating.
Congressional Leadership Out of Touch With Voters
Ironically, recent polling shows that nearly nine in 10 voters across party lines support stronger enforcement of existing laws and regulations and are concerned that corporations are not being held responsible for incidents that harm the public – like chemical spills in the Elk River of West Virginia, toxic clouds over Richmond, California and oil train explosions.
But the pace and volume of attacks against federal agencies, regulation and the rulemaking process in the 114th Congress have been unprecedented. In just six months, nearly a dozen major anti-regulatory bills have been pushed through Congress – prodded by corporate lobbyists.
Earlier this year, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a series of major anti-regulatory bills that would bury federal agencies under an array of new procedural and analytical requirements and paralyze their work. These bills include the Regulatory Accountability Act (H.R. 185), the Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act (H.R. 527 / S. 426) and the Unfunded Mandates Information and Transparency Act (H.R. 50 / S. 189).
Other anti-regulatory bills currently making their way through Congress include the ALERT Act (H.R. 1759), the REINS Act (H.R. 427), the SCRUB Act (H.R. 1155), the Secret Science Reform Act (S. 544), the Small Business Paperwork Relief Act (S. 86) and the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act (H.R. 712).
These bills would delay or shut down the development and implementation of crucial public health, workplace safety, consumer and environmental protections – even as the scientific evidence of their public health risks mount. If even one of these bills were already law, the DOT’s watered-down oil train rule would have been killed before birth, bottled up in endless analytic review or blocked by congressional inaction.
The majority also has used hearings in both chambers to castigate staff at regulatory agencies and propose ideas that would undermine the regulatory process, calling for expanded legislative review, regulatory budgeting and the rollback of established safeguards. Hearings have been used to attack basic workplace safety protections, Wall Street reform, consumer financial protections, clean water and clean air standards, and agency use of scientific evidence. And the appropriations process has been used to attach anti-regulatory riders and amendments to agency budgets in an attempt to prevent the federal government from enforcing established laws.
Prevention Saves Lives and Resources
A June 2014 report from the Office of Management and Budget showed that over the past decade, regulations produced an estimated $863 billion in benefits to the public – 15 times the cost that regulated industries invested to improve their products and technologies. Rules and standards that keep our economy safe, fair and prosperous are an extremely good return on investment – and help prevent the recurrence of costly disasters such as the financial collapse of 2008 and the oil train explosions that are the inevitable result of letting big corporations play by their own rules.
Stronger safeguards for oil trains are possible. In March, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act (S. 859), which contains provisions the DOT should have included in its rule. The bill sets a federal safety standard for the more volatile tar sands and shale crude oil. It requires rail cars be protected by more puncture-resistant steel shells, as well as thermal jackets that increase fire resistance.
In addition, it immediately halts the transport of oil in any rail car that hasn’t been reinforced, as opposed to the five-year grace period allowed under the DOT rule. The bill also mandates more safety inspections of rail carriers and oil producers, heftier penalties for noncompliance and improved spill response plans, and it requires that state and local authorities be notified before oil trains move through their communities.
This is how most Americans want their representatives in Congress to spend their time – reducing the risks to their families and communities, not railing against the public agencies tasked with achieving that goal.
Please tell congressional leaders to stop attacking regulations and start passing laws that protect us from public health and safety threats like exploding oil trains.
Your editorial voice is important in this debate. Stronger safeguards for oil trains are possible, but they won’t become a reality as long as the attacks on our system of public protections continue. Congress should be working to strengthen – rather than sabotage – the agencies and safeguards that protect us all.
The Coalition for Sensible Safeguards is an alliance of more than 150 consumer, labor, scientific, research, faith, community, environmental, small business, good government, public health and public interest groups — representing millions of Americans. We are joined in the belief that our country’s system of regulatory safeguards should secure our quality of life, pave the way for a sound economy and benefit us all. Learn more at www.SensibleSafeguards.org.