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Safety rules to prevent oil-train explosions delayed

Safety rules to prevent oil-train explosions delayed

U.S. Department of Transportation

Sounds like we might need to get used to oil-hauling trains exploding. New rules that would require railways to use stronger cars for transporting crude will not be ready until next year, the federal government announced this week.

There are a few reasons why we’re seeing more oil-train explosions these days. The main one is the huge rise in the amount of oil being extracted in the U.S. and then transported by rail to refiners. Also, fracked crude from the Bakken formation in North Dakota is particularly explosive thanks to its higher levels of light hydrocarbons and, possibly, the presence of flammable fracking chemicals. And DOT-111 tanker rail cars, which make up 70 percent of the nation’s tanker fleet, puncture easily. 

Here’s Fuel Fix with an update on forthcoming railcar safety rules:

New regulations that could force older tank cars to be upgraded or phased out are under development, but will not be proposed until Nov. 12 and will be subject to a public comment period until Jan. 12, 2015, according to the Department of Transportation.

However, that initial timeline could shift as the process continues, said Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration spokesman Gordon Delacambre.

If the timeline shifts, expect the rules to be even later.

This is a big disappointment to some lawmakers and others who had hoped that the rules would be drafted in the coming months weeks. From the Twin Cities Pioneer Press:

[North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven (R)] and other federal lawmakers turned up the pressure in the wake of the Dec. 30 crash in Casselton, where 18 DOT-111 cars hauling crude oil ruptured after the train collided with a derailed soybean train, sparking explosions and sending thick plumes of black smoke over the small town.

“It’s disappointing,” Hoeven said Wednesday after the DOT released its schedule. “They need to get going on this.” …

Hoeven said a quicker rollout of regulations is necessary to put the public at ease and let shipping companies know what rules they’ll be working under. …

More than 300,000 DOT-111s are on the rails — 94,000 of which haul hazardous fluids such as crude oil and ethanol, according to the Railway Supply Institute.

There is a bit of good news. Railroad and oil companies agreed on Thursday to take some voluntary steps to make oil trains safer. From The Wall Street Journal:

Any steps the industries take voluntarily would occur much faster than changes imposed by regulators. …

Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Transportation Department, said the railroads agreed to take steps to avoid derailments and reroute trains around high-risk areas. …

The railroads also agreed to “work on a speed reduction plan” for high-risk areas, Mr. Foxx said.

The energy and rail industries also agreed to come up with new recommendations for tank-car fleets in the next 30 days, he said.

For now, if you live near train tracks, keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.

New regulations for oil on rail cars to come in 2015, Fuel Fix
After North Dakota crash, new crude oil tank car rules not coming until 2015, Pioneer Press
Rail, Oil Industries to Make Safety Changes for Transporting Crude, The Wall Street Journal

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Safety rules to prevent oil-train explosions delayed

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The Final Frontier: 500 Microseconds Between Wall Street and Chicago

Mother Jones

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A couple of months ago, there was a big scandal over the fact that someone apparently learned about a Fed decision sooner than they should have. It takes seven milliseconds for a signal to travel from Washington DC to Chicago over a fiber optic cable, but a couple of big orders were placed on the Chicago exchange a mere couple of milliseconds after the Fed announcement. Shazam!

But if an advantage of a few milliseconds is so important, why bother with fiber optic cables? Why not mount repeaters on blimps or something, and then relay wireless signals? At the speed of light, it would only take about four milliseconds from DC to Chicago.

I suppose I should have guessed, but naturally someone is doing this:

Ari Rubenstein, a “Star Trek” fan who counts physics as a hobby….heads Strike Technologies, a New York company that’s part of a budding cottage industry racing to build networks of ultra-fast microwave radio transmitters linking the world’s financial hubs.

….Strike, whose ranks include academics as well as former U.S. and Israeli military engineers, hoisted a 6-foot white dish on a tower rising 280 feet above the Nasdaq Stock Market’s data center in Carteret, N.J., just outside New York City.

Through a series of microwave towers, the dish beams market data 734 miles to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s computer warehouse in Aurora, Ill., in 4.13 milliseconds, or about 95% of the theoretical speed of light, according to the company.

Remember that Keynes thing about goosing the economy by burying money in landfills and letting people dig it up? In terms of social utility, this strikes as about the same thing. It’s hard to imagine millions of dollars being spent more uselessly. Even gold plated toilet seats probably have more value to society than this.

In any case, I still think my idea for a neutrino communications network that transmits directly through the earth is a better bet. Sure, you’d need a million gallons of chlorine or heavy water or something to act as the detector, but that seems pretty trivial in order to save another 500 microsceconds. Who’s going to be the first to do this?


The Final Frontier: 500 Microseconds Between Wall Street and Chicago

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