DOT proposes new standards for ethanol, crude oil rail shipments

By Erin Voegele | July 23, 2014

On July 23, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration released proposed rulemaking that aims to improve the safety of rail transportation of flammable materials, particularly crude oil and ethanol. Representatives of the ethanol industry have criticized the rulemaking for failing to distinguish between products like ethanol that feature an admirable safety record and products for which legitimate and serious concerns have been raised, such as Bakken crude oil.

“Safety is our top priority, which is why I’ve worked aggressively to improve the safe transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials since my first week in office,” said Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. “While we have made unprecedented progress through voluntary agreements and emergency orders, today’s proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

The PHMSA’s proposed rulemaking includes two parts. A notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) proposes enhanced tank car standards, a classification and testing program for mined gases and liquids and new operational requirements for high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) that include braking controls and speed restrictions. A separate advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) seeks further information on expanding comprehensive oil spill response planning requirements for shipments of flammable materials. The NPRM is based on an ANPRM published by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in September 2013. According to the PHMSA, the propose rule reflects feedback from more than 152,000 commenters.

Within the proposed rule the DOE indicates that approximately 68 percent of the flammable liquids currently transported by rail are comprised for crude oil or ethanol. In 2008, there were an estimated 292,000 rail carloads of ethanol. By 2011, the rulemaking states that volume increased by more than 40 percent, reaching 409,000 rail carloads.

The rulemaking also provides an estimate of the current fleet of rail tank cars. According to the PHMSA, approximately 334,869 rail tank cars are currently in service in the U.S., with 272,119 of those classified as DOT-111 tank cars. An estimated 80,500 DOT-111 tank cars in are flammable liquid service. An additional 17,300 CPC-1232 tank cars are in flammable liquid service. Overall, approximately 42,550 tank cars are estimated to be in service hauling crude oil with 29,780 tank cars in service hauling ethanol. No CPC-1232 (jacketed) tank cars are in ethanol service, with an estimated 480 CPC-1232 (non-jacketed) tank cars in ethanol service. The DOE estimates 100 DOT-111 (jacketed) tank cars are in ethanol service, along with 29,200 DOT-111 (non-jacketed) tank cars. In comparison, 4,850 CPC-1232 (jacketed), 9,400 CPC-1232 (non-jacketed), 5,500 DOT-111 (jacketed) and 22,800 DOT-111 (non-jacketed) tank cars are in crude service.

Among the components of the NPRM is a provision that would require the phase out of old DOT-111 tank cars for the shipment of packing group I flammable liquids within two years. The rulemaking also proposes to define the term HHFT as a train carrying 20 or more tank carloads of flammable liquids and would require carriers to perform a routing analysis for HHFTs that would consider 27 safety and security factors and select a route based on findings of the route analysis. HHFTs would also be subject to speed restrictions of no more than 50 miles per hour (mph) in all areas. Public comments are requested on whether or not NNFTs that contain any tank cars not meeting certain enhanced tank car standards should be subject to a 40-mph restriction in all areas, only in high-threat urban areas or in areas with a population of more than 100,000. Comments are also requested on whether a 30-mph restriction should be placed on HHFTs that do not comply with enhanced braking requirements. Regarding those requirements, the PHMSA is proposing that all HHFTs be equipped with alternative brake signal propagation systems.

The proposal also calls for enhanced standards for both new and existing tank cars. New tank cars constructed after Oct. 1, 2015 that are used to transport flammable liquids as part of a HHFT would be required to meet criteria for a selected option, including specific design requirements for performance criteria. PHMSA is requesting comments on three options for the DOT Specification 117. Existing tank cars that are used to transport flammable liquids as part of a NNFT would be retrofitted to meet the selected option for performance requirements, except for top fittings protection. Existing tank cars that are not retrofitted would be retired, repurposed or operated under speed restrictions for up to five years, based on packing group assignment of the lading.

Responding to the proposed rule, Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, expressed concern that the rule paints with too broad a brush and fails to distinguish between products with an admirable safety record, such as ethanol, and those for which legitimate and serious concerns have been raised, such as crude oil from the Bakken.

“Ethanol is a low volatility, consistent commercial product with a 99.997 percent rail safety record,” Dinneen said. “Unlike oil from fracking, ethanol is not a highly volatile feedstock of unknown and differing quality and characteristics being shipped to a refinery for commercial use. Before this proposed rule is finalized, the RFA looks forward to engaging the Department of Transportation in a constructive dialogue about these differences, and the need to have a practical and effective phase-in of these new standards. In the meanwhile, the U.S. ethanol industry will continue to work with all parties to assure the safe and effective transport of this low-cost, domestic renewable fuel to markets all across the country.”

A 60-day comment period on the NPRM and the ANPRM will be opened following publication in the Federal Register. The PHSMA indicated it does not intent to extend the comment period due to the urgency of the safety issues addressed in the proposals. Prepublication versions of the proposals can be downloaded from the PHMSA website