WASHINGTON — Two Senate committee chairmen asked the secretaries of transportation and energy on Thursday to take "prompt and decisive action" to resolve recent safety problems with crude oil transported by rail.
A series of fiery derailments, including a deadly wreck in Quebec last summer and a near-miss last week in North Dakota, have attracted the attention of lawmakers, who until this point had said little about the issue.
But with concern growing over public safety and a potential disruption of oil deliveries amid a North American energy boom, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources panel, asked both federal departments to work together to resolve the issue quickly "and prevent any further disasters."
Two DOT agencies, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, have been working on new safety standards for tank cars used in crude oil transportation, aided by the railroad industry. But citing an "alarming" recurrence of derailments and fires involving crude oil trains, Rockefeller and Wyden asked regulators to move faster and requested help from the Energy Department.
"The recent series of explosions and accidents involving oil trains demands an investigation and review of our current safety practices and regulations," they wrote to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
At least three derailments in the past six months have called into question whether the industry or its regulators made adequate safety preparations for carrying 100-car trains of flammable cargo through rural areas, as well as population centers.
Railroads have become the preferred route to market for crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region, in the absence of new pipelines. The state produces about 1 million barrels of oil a day, and about 70 percent of it moves by rail.
About two-thirds of the 100,000 railroad tank cars used in crude oil transportation have less crash protection. New tank cars have met a higher safety standard since 2011, but their manufacturers are overwhelmed with orders amid the oil rush and can't build them fast enough to replace older ones.
Railroads are carrying as much or more crude oil as would the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The senators noted that the North Dakota Pipeline Authority has projected that rail capacity for shipping oil might be double that of pipelines by 2016.