Federal regulators said on Wednesday that they would require railroads and oil shippers to use stronger tank cars to transport crude oil within two years.
The new rules lay out a speedier timetable than initially expected to phase out old cars in response to a spate of derailments and spills involving oil trains in the last year.
The timetable, which is faster than a similar effort in Canada to phase out older tank cars within three years, could put pressure on manufacturers to build or retrofit tank cars in time to meet the new mandate.
The rules by the Transportation Department offer a wide range of measures to enhance the safety of oil trains, some of which had already been adopted by railroads on a voluntary basis in recent months, like notifying state emergency responders about train traffic, reducing speed limits or picking the safest route.
After a series of derailments, many local and state officials have expressed concern about the rapid rise of oil train traffic across the country. Many critics have called for retiring older tank cars that have been vulnerable to puncturing and exploding in a crash. Making things worse, the kind of oil that comes out of the Bakken region — which includes shale fields in North Dakota — is particularly flammable and prone to explosion.
Under the new rules, tank cars used for crude oil, ethanol and other petroleum products would require thicker steel shielding and better thermal protection, and would have to be fitted with more crash-resistant valves. Older models that cannot be refitted with these features would have to be retired or used for less hazardous materials.
Transportation officials are still seeking public comment on whether to outfit the new cars with electronically controlled brakes and rollover protection, and whether to use seven-sixteenths-inch or nine-sixteenths-inch steel. The department said the proposed rules would be open to public comment for 60 days. Final rules are expected by early next year.
The Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car makers, had a muted response to the plan, saying it would review the proposed rules and respond.
The Transportation Department has been working on the new standard for several years. But the rapid development of domestic oil supplies from the Bakken shale region has caught many officials off guard. Most of that oil is transported by rail, given the lack of pipelines to take the oil to refineries.
The hazards of transporting crude oil by rail were made apparent last July, when an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, destroying much of the city center and killing 47 people.
A new tank car design was introduced in 2011 with some enhanced features, but those cars have also been involved in spills — most recently in April, when an oil train derailed in Lynchburg, Va., and spilled 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River.
About 98,000 tank cars are in service carrying crude oil and ethanol in the United States and Canada, according to the Association of American Railroads. Known as DOT-111s, their design dates to the 1960s, and a majority were built before 2011. About 18,000 have been built since then and could be modified if needed, according to industry officials.
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“We are proposing to phase out the DOT-111 tank car in its current form,” Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary, said on a conference call with reporters, adding that current oil trains “obviously present a safety risk.”
Some industry officials point out that phasing out older cars too fast would lead to a shortage that might curtail the surging production of oil from the Bakken. The new standard would apply to cars built after Oct. 1, 2015.
The new rules would classify any train with more than 20 tank cars carrying crude oil as a “high-hazard flammable train.” Regulators are seeking public comment on new speed limits for those trains, including whether to set up 40 miles-per-hour restrictions in urban areas with more than 100,000 people.
The Transportation Department is also working on separate rules that would require shippers to set up a comprehensive emergency oil-response spill plan.
The new rules require railroads to select the route posing “the least overall safety and security risk” when transporting oil by using the same analysis they perform when transporting other types of hazardous, toxic or radioactive material. This requirement had been part of the voluntary set of measures that railroads had agreed to undertake this year. The new rules, however, do not address what critics perceive is the industry’s opacity when picking a specific route for its shipments or the lack of information that railroads provided to local authorities.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said the Transportation Department should further strengthen provisions to notify emergency medical workers and local authorities for oil trains moving through their communities. Shippers are asked to give monthly assessments to state emergency response officials. “The failure to broaden notification requirements is especially baffling,” he said in a statement.
Federal regulators have acknowledged the high level of risk associated with these oil trains. Federal inspectors have tested Bakken crude and concluded that it was “on the high end of volatility” compared with other types of crude oils, Mr. Foxx said. This means it has a higher gas content, higher vapor pressure and a lower flash point and boiling point than other types of oils, making it more flammable.
This assertion drew a sharp denial from the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s trade group. It said: “The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks. DOT needs to get this right and make sure that its regulations are grounded in facts and sound science, not speculation.”