Step toward requiring oil companies to stabilize highly flammable crude oil before shipping

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U.S. Senator Schumer has announced that, following his push, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is taking its first major step toward requiring oil companies to stabilize their highly flammable crude oil before shipping it by rail.

Schumer has long argued that current laws allow for dangerous crude oil to be shipped through the backyards of Upstate NY communities without being stabilized, making violent explosions far more likely. On Tueday, the USDOT issued a report on their rulemaking for the reminder of the year, and it includes the start of two proposals for which he has long advocated.

First, USDOT will begin a formal process to request comments and information from stakeholders on whether or not there should be a vapor pressure standard for the shipment of crude oil by rail.

Second, the USDOT will begin a process to establish federal “best practices” for how to test hazardous materials – like crude by rail – for things like vapor pressure. Ultimately, this is the first step in a regulatory process to establish scientifically supported federal standards regarding the safety of crude oil prior to shipment and will ultimately lead to greater overall safety as oil is shipped through NY.

According to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), crude oil is highly flammable and could explode if a tank car derails and punctures. Schumer said that his ongoing push to strengthen tank car standards that will make punctures and breaches less likely is a critical step in making crude transport by rail safer, but an all-of-the-above approach is needed; making the actual crude oil loaded into the tank cars less volatile is something oil companies are capable of doing and another important step the federal government must undertake.

According to Schumer, research has shown Bakken Shale Oil, which is currently shipped through New York, is significantly more volatile than other types of crude oil produced elsewhere in the world. In some cases the currently being shipped through New York is as much as 3 or 4 times more volatile than crude produced around the Gulf of Mexico, making the likelihood of a catastrophic accident far higher. 

Canadian Pacific and CSX freight rail lines carry crude oil across New York and pass through nearly every major urban area. CSX lines carry crude from Buffalo through Rochester, Syracuse and Utica to the Albany area, where some of the oil is diverted to the Port of Albany and the remainder then heads south on rail lines along the Hudson River before skirting New York City on its way to New Jersey. The Canadian Pacific (CP) freight rail line brings crude down from Rouses Point through Plattsburgh, along Lake Champlain and Whitehall, Saratoga, Cohoes, and Watervliet to Albany. Some crude from the CP line merges with Pam Am Railroad at Mechanicville and heads east to Massachusetts. Most, however, continue to the Port of Albany where the crude oil is loaded onto barges or oil tankers to travel down the Hudson en route to refineries in Canada and the east coast.
 

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