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Since 2005, crude oil shipments by railways have risen by more than 400 percent. The increase is largely because of the boom in shale oil production in the U.S. and Canada. Concerns about recent accidents led the National Transportation Safety Board last week to call for stricter rail standards. The head of the NTSB, Deborah Hersman, said safety rules need to catch up with the new reality of large-scale oil shipments. Hersman also said, “the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.” What new rail safety rules could mean for industry, population centers and the Keystone XL Pipeline.
- Robert Sumwalt One of five members of the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency.
- Marianne Lavelle Senior energy editor, National Geographic.
- Kevin Book Managing director of research, ClearView Energy Partners.
- Ed Hamberger President and CEO, Association of American Railroads.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Railway shipments of crude oil have grown dramatically in the past decade. The National Transportation Safety Board last week called for tougher rules for trains carrying oil. The NTSB sited the agency's concern about the potential for major loss of life, property damage, and environmental consequences.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the new NTSB recommendations: Robert Sumwalt -- he's a member of the National Transportation Safety Board -- Marianne Lavelle, senior energy editor of National Geographic, and Kevin Book, a managing director of ClearView Energy Partners. Do join us. Your questions, comments throughout the hour, 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome to all of you.
MS. MARIANNE LAVELLEGlad to be here.
MR. ROBERT SUMWALTGood to be here.
MR. KEVIN BOOKIt's great to be here. Thank you, Diane.
REHMRobert Sumwalt, what's behind the thinking of the NTSB in changing these rules?
SUMWALTWell, Diane, thanks for having us. I think, first of all, it's important to point out that the railroads in this country do really a good job of transporting products throughout the country, and they are a vital part of our national economy. But, that said, the NTSB is concerned about the transport of flammable materials, flammable liquids, such as crude oil and ethanol by rail. And we came out with three recommendations on Thursday to address our concerns.
REHMAnd these three rules?
SUMWALTWell, as you say, there are three. We're trying to take a multifaceted approach to rail safety. The first recommendation centers around route planning, safer routing, and we want the railroads to, on an annual basis, to use data to analyze the safety and security risk along with rail routes where hazardous materials will be transported.
SUMWALTAnd as part of that, we want them to consider alternative routing. That's one recommendation. The other one is for -- we want the railroads to do oil spill response preparedness and essentially have a -- we want the railroads to have adequate comprehensive oil spill response plans which may involve having resources properly prepositioned in case of a spill. And the third one, Diane, concerns the proper labeling and classification of hazardous materials that are transported and then -- so those are the three, and then we've had a long-standing interest in the crash worthiness of these DOT 111 tank cars.
REHMDOT 111. I've seen that term, but describe that DOT 111.
SUMWALTWell, it's -- the DOT 111, it's a specification outlined by the federal government in the hazardous regulations, hazardous materials regulations, the HMRs which some under the DOT, Department of Transportation. And we've found -- and this is just a specification that a lot of the tank cars that we see out going up and down the track are that spec. Recent accidents have really shown that using these cars to ship flammable liquids poses an unacceptable public risk.
SUMWALTWell, they can come -- we've found that they can fracture very easily during a derailment and collision.
REHMI see. OK. Couple of things I want to ask you about. You said alternative routing rails. Now, what does that mean? If you're suggesting alternative routing, doesn't that mean you have to construct new railways?
SUMWALTWell, that's a great question, Diane, as you always ask great questions. And we don't want to be overzealous and say we have to go out and build a total new rail infrastructure. The infrastructure is there, but railroads can do risk assessments, risk analysis to figure out those routes which may pose the lowest risk to the public. And that's really what we want them to do.
REHMBut if they're currently going through towns, cities, which are totally populated, how would you otherwise do it without constructing new rails?
SUMWALTIt could be that they will route the trains around those highly populated areas. That's one alternative. And what we want them to do is use data to do a risk assessment.
REHMOK. The other question I have for you is proper labeling. Are you suggesting that some flammable material is not properly labeled?
SUMWALTIndeed, we are suggesting that. And as you know, on July the 6th, there was a horrible train accident in Quebec. It was Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. An entire town was wiped out. There were 47 fatalities and wiped out an entire town center. This was a crude oil derailment and explosion. And so the Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating that. They've asked for our assistance, and we're assisting with it. But what the investigation has shown thus far is that the crude oil was not properly labeled when it was being shipped.
SUMWALTWell, that's going to be a billion-dollar question there is to find out why it was not. We understand that when it was presented from the oil production places into the trucks, it was labeled properly, but when it got to the train, it was not labeled properly.
REHMBut give me an understanding. When you say labeled properly, how was it labeled in the trucks, and then how was it labeled when it got to the train?
SUMWALTThere are three different packing groups, and it goes from packing group three to packing group one. Packing group one is the least hazardous. Packing group three -- I think I've got that backwards. Packing group three is the least hazardous. Packing group one is the most hazardous. And so these were labeled as the least...
SUMWALTYes, as the least hazardous. In reality...
REHMHow could that happen?
SUMWALTWell, and I think that's exactly what the Transportation Safety Board of Canada intends to find out.
REHMAll right. That's the voice of Robert Sumwalt. He's -- pardon me -- one of five members of the National Transportation Safety Board. Marianne Lavelle, Robert spoke of an accident in Canada, but that surely isn't the only one that's happened.
LAVELLERight. Since Lac-Mégantic, there have been four crude oil accidents in North America, two in Canada and two here in the United States. There were no injuries or fatalities, but very, very bad oil spill in Aliceville, Ala. in November. More than a million gallons spilled. In North Dakota, just a few weeks ago, there was a very bad explosion and spill.
LAVELLEYou have to step back and look what is happening here is that our energy landscape, really in all of North America, is changing, and it's changing far ahead of our safety regulations. The amount of crude oil that has been traveling on the railroads, on U.S. railroads, has increased. We wrote some 85-fold since 2006, and we -- and this really is all about what's happening in North Dakota, which very quickly became the number two oil producer in the country.
LAVELLEThey're producing about a million barrels of oil a day. Seventy percent of it is going on rail because they had no pipelines. But they had railroads. Now, the one relevant thing that we have to remember, the NTSB's recommendations are, you know, definitely much needed, but it's a very complicated situation because we're not even just talking about routing railroads around populations. But some of these oil trains are destined for very populous areas, and...
LAVELLE...including Philadelphia. My old home town is the number one destination right now for oil trains from North Dakota.
REHMWhat happened in Cherry Valley, Ill.?
LAVELLEThat is in 2009, and that was not an oil train. That was an ethanol train, a Canadian national ethanol train. And I think Robert will tell you that the NTSB recommended, at that time, that these DOT 111s are prone to puncture. There was an explosion at a grade crossing in Cherryville, (sic) Ill., and many people were injured. One woman died at the grade crossing trying to flee the fireball, and it was just a very tragic accident. And the NTSB, at that time, warned about these tank cars. Since then, they've been used more and more for flammable liquids.
REHMMarianne Lavelle of National Geographic. Kevin Book, as managing director of research for ClearView Energy Partners, how does this mislabeling occur?
BOOKIt's not clear how the mislabeling occurs, but what is clear is that the pipeline and hazardous materials safety administration, FEMSA, is conducting a survey of what's in tank cars and how they've been labeled and comparing the results. And we're due to see some of those results relatively soon. I suspect that FEMSA's conclusions will probably reveal some of what Robert eluded to, which is getting to the root cause.
REHMKevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about rail transport of hazardous materials, most especially oil and gas which has been transported by rail. There have been a number of accidents both in Canada and the United States. And I keep wondering whether all of this is somehow pointing everybody toward, well, we must construct the Keystone XL pipeline in order to get rails out of the business of transporting crude oil. What do you think, Kevin Book?
BOOKWell, Diane, the proponents of the pipeline might say that, but the people who are drilling wells wouldn't because, in their world, shipping oil around the nation is probably going to be a multimodal business for the future. The reason is that rail conveys what economists would call an option value. Effectively, you're not committed as long, and you can go more places. Pipelines are big commitments to one place.
BOOKAnd in effect, the argument doesn't necessarily work if you say, well, we're going to take out some of the option value. Now you've taken out some of the incentive for production. But it is an argument that's been made. There's an irony that's worth noting, too, which is that the Keystone XL pipeline's environmental review was predicated on the idea that there was no incremental greenhouse gas impact because that oil would find its way to market another way.
BOOKSo ironically enough, even though proponents of the pipeline would say real accidents equals pipeline incentives, if you take away the access to rail, you undercut the administration's own argument for why the pipeline's OK.
REHMSay more about that.
BOOKWell, we'll see what the State Department reveals in its final environmental impact statement.
REHMWhich is due when?
BOOKWe've heard a lot of different dates, Diane, but the most recent is February. And so perhaps we'll see it soon.
BOOKAnd if they say that there's still no additional impact because oil can find its way to market another way, then that logic holds and this irony holds, too.
REHMWhat about the construction that's already in place of the southern portion of the keystone pipeline?
BOOKWell, that went into service on Jan. 22. And it's operating. The whole principle of the pipeline isn't just to bring oil from Canada but also to what's called debottleneck the continent and bring crude out of Cushing, Okla. and down to the Gulf Coast. That's happening now. But that's not the whole story. If we're going to look at the resource opportunity in North America and we want to expand it, we need not just the Keystone XL northern portion, probably two or three more pipelines as well over the next two decades.
REHMTwo or three more, Mary?
LAVELLEDiane, one point about Keystone XL, if it were built, there would be only room on that pipeline for 100,000 barrels a day of North Dakota oil. Right now, North Dakota is probably sending by rail about 700,000 barrels a day. So Keystone XL does not take away the issue of what to do about crude oil trains because, as long as we have this crude oil production in North Dakota, we're going to need some way to transport it.
REHMHow dangerous is the transport of crude oil, Marianne?
LAVELLEThere is a lot of study and debate on which is the best way to transport oil. The International Energy Agency did a study last year, and that was before all of the oil spills and problems on the trains in 2013. And they said that the incidents of spills is more common on trains, but the amount of oil that's been spilled has been greater on pipelines. So, no matter how you look at it, there's a risk there in transporting it. And if we're going to be transporting oil, we've got to look to safety regulations.
REHMAnd so far you've been talking about U.S. production of oil. How different is the oil coming from the oil sands in Canada in terms of its volatility?
LAVELLEMy understanding is not as much oil so far is traveling from the oil sands as North Dakota. There are two questions about the makeup of oil. One is volatility, and that's the issue with North Dakota's oil. Does it have more ethane or natural gas liquids that are making it more volatile? The regulatory agency -- the DOT sub-agency said they warned early this month that they believe that that is the case, that it's more explosive than crude oil in the past. Then there's a second issue, and that's on corrosion. There is a sign that there is more corrosion than expected...
REHMTherefore the tankers used to transport are insufficient...
LAVELLEAnd is that the oil sands or is that the North Dakota oil? It could be either. One thing we've written about at National Geographic is the problem of saltiness of the North Dakota oil wells and that they really have the problem of salt build-up. Is that causing corrosion? That's something again, as Kevin said, there's a lot of investigation of really the makeup of what the substance of the oil is that's being transported.
REHMYou know, I want to go back a bit. You talked earlier, Marianne, about how the number of explosions has increased with the number of gallons being transported. Before, say, the year 2000, do we know how many explosions there were in rail transport?
LAVELLEOh my goodness, my figures wouldn't go back that far.
SUMWALTDiane, we don't -- at the NTSB, we have those figures. I don't have them right away. We investigate most of these. However, the Federal Railroad Administration investigates many of the smaller ones. So we don't have those right at our fingertips.
REHMSo it sounds to me as though you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. You've decided that oil is going to be transported one way or another, and there's really no absolutely safe way to do it. Is that a fair statement, Kevin?
BOOKIf you're going to use the word absolutely, then I would absolutely agree. Energy is all about tradeoffs. And as Marianne pointed out, there's questions of which crude you're taking and which risk you are facing as a result. But the safety of both pipelines and rail is pretty good if you look at the volumes of the oil that's moving. And there's one particularly nice thing.
BOOKOur energy policy is so fragmented, Diane, but at least in this case, one agency, the Department of Transportation, oversees both manners of transport. So you actually have a unified agency level view where there's two regulators, the Federal Railroad Administration and FEMSA, working on this. And they're looking at both modes at the same time.
REHMWhat about trucks transport? How great is that? How safe is that, Marianne?
LAVELLEThis is a question I was going to pass to Robert because I think it's something we have to look at as well because there is an increase in transport by truck as well out of North Dakota. I just don't know the figures or really the regulations or how those tank cars differ from the tank cars on the rail.
SUMWALTWell, our concern at the safety board is, yes, the crude oil is going to be transported. It needs to be transported, but we just want to make sure that it's done in the safety possible manner. And that's what we're all about.
REHMAll right. Here is a message posted on Facebook from Mike who says, "You know, who cares what it means for industry? What does it mean for humans if they don't approve better safety measures?"
BOOKI mean, I think that one thing that's important to contextualize this whole debate is that there are many stakeholder groups that are focused on trying to make these rail cars safer. It's not just the NTSB's recommendations dating back to Cherry Valley and even before, but also the producers themselves and the railroads. There's a new standard for tank cars that was introduced in October of 2011. Every new tank car bought since then has met a new standard.
BOOKAnd since then the railroads have even stepped up their calls and they'd like to go for an even higher standard for tank cars, more top fittings protection, have high head shields, terms of ours that probably don't mean much to your listeners, but thicker, studier cars. And they're even calling for retrofits to existing cars, which is a matter of some contention because not everybody agrees that that's a good idea.
REHMYeah. What percentage of crude oil being shipped by rail in the U.S. goes through or near populated centers?
BOOKWow, Diane, I don't know the answer off the top of my head, but I would again point out that one of the things that you have is that railroads were designed to carry freight to urban centers largely, and so most of them pass through urban centers. I'd say it's probably a pretty high percentage. And the second reason is that the destination markets for that crude are refineries in urban centers.
REHMBut the point being that they'd all have to be retrofitted to carry this kind of crude oil if they're going through populated centers, wouldn't they?
BOOKWell, that's a call that some have made, not all. About 70 percent of the rail cars on the road today do not meet the October 2011 standard, the ones carrying crude. And so there's a lot to retrofit. If you actually say that even that standard wasn't sturdy enough, now you're saying you need to retrofit 100 percent of the rail cars. It may be something that you want to do, but being able to do it is a function of having the rail shops available to do to the work.
LAVELLEI have to speak for the towns that aren't as huge as the urban center. And we spoke to folks in...
LAVELLE...in Illinois. There's 130 grade crossings on just one Canadian National line that is taking an increase in these freight trains. And the people there are very concerned. We spoke to Barrington, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. They have 20 freight trains come through there a day. More and more of them are the crude oil trains. And those folks really began the petition for new safety regulations. And they are very concerned.
LAVELLEThey're even concerned about the idea of routing them further from the cities because that means more railroad trains going through a 10,000-person town.
SUMWALTWell, Diane, I was at Casselton, N.D. over New Year's, which is where the most recent explosion occurred in this country. And I can tell you that the citizens of Casselton, N.D., all 2500 of them, they are very concerned.
SUMWALTThey were uprooted. This explosion occurred about a half mile to a mile from the city -- from the town center. And they're traumatized.
REHMWhat did it do to the town?
SUMWALTWell, fortunately, the explosion occurred out of the town limits. So there was no property damage in terms of houses or buildings. But had it been a half mile or a mile further to the east, it would've been a whole different story.
SUMWALTRobert Sumwalt, one of five members of the NTSB. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And joining us now from his office here in Washington, Ed Hamberger. He's president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. Welcome, sir. I'm glad you could join us.
MR. ED HAMBERGERWell, thank you so much, Diane. It's a privilege and an honor to be on your show.
REHMI gather your organization is in support of this NTSB's rail safety recommendations. To what extent would you support rerouting and thereby rebuilding rail to avoid populated areas carrying -- with trains carrying these hazardous materials?
HAMBERGERWell, I think you raised a very important point. When we talk about choosing the best route for the transportation of hazardous materials, it is not possible given the history and the way the rail network system has developed over the past 150 years to avoid all population centers. It just is not feasible. And as I believe Ms. Lavelle pointed out, oftentimes the end destination -- and I'm from right outside Philadelphia, Ms. Lavelle, so we were neighbors back then -- you have to get the material from where it's produced to where it's needed.
HAMBERGERAnd what we're proposing -- we'll be proposing though with the secretary here in a couple of weeks, there is a federal routing computer program that takes into account 27 different risk factors. And it is designed to move our most hazardous material, like chlorine, for example. And we're taking a look, and I think we'll be proposing to the secretary that we use this computer model to determine what is the safest most secure route not just for things like chlorine, but now for ethanol and crude oil as well.
REHMOK. And what about the construction of stronger vats to hold this hazardous material?
HAMBERGERWell, as I believe it was Mr. Book pointed out, we've been on record since March of 2011. We petitioned the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration to mandate a new improved stronger tank car. When they did not move with the cooperation of our customers like the oil companies, the chemical companies, we moved to a stronger tank car in October of 2011. With what we've learned since then, we believe that we have to go even beyond what we asked for and mandated in October of 2011.
REHMSo how many tank cars will you have to replace?
HAMBERGERWell, there are 92,000, in round figures, tank cars carrying crude oil right now. About 14,000 of those meet the 2011 standard. We would like to see an aggressive retrofit or phase-out of starting with the 78,000 of the -- you mentioned the DOT 111 -- starting with those. And the timeline is so difficult because we don't know what the manufacturing capacity is. We need to sit down with the tank car manufacturing companies. We don't know what the demand will be from our customers.
HAMBERGERAnd one of the things that we can't lose sight of, in November of 2013, for the first time in 20 years, America produced more crude oil than we imported. And I think that's an important concept. The American Chemistry Council has announced that their members will be investing $60 billion in new chemical plants in the United States, creating jobs, cutting down our dependence on foreign oil. So we have to keep that, I think, as part of the context of what we're talking about but recognizing that we have to do it as safely as possible.
REHMEd Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. Thanks for joining us, sir.
REHMAnd when we come back, your calls, your comments. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. It's time to go to the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Houston, Texas. Hi there, Robert. You're on the air.
ROBERTWell, thank you, Diane. Big fan of yours. I'll be quick.
ROBERTI've got a couple of comments and then a quick suggestion. On the rerouting of these trains around the urban areas, if you look at the history of rails, basically the U.S. track mileage has been reduced by about 60 percent in the last century. And I just don't think that's an option. The trackage is not there without building new. I'd like to ask your guest, Robert, he was having some trouble with packing groups, if he, off the top of his head, knows the placard number for crude oil?
ROBERTOne of the problems with the people who actually put those placards on and deal with this on a regular basis is there's a lot of regulations that can be very confusing. And then, finally, on the impact or what actually causes the leak under the flammables and what could be done to make it better or less likely that they would be punctured? I had a conversation with an engineer out at the Southwest Research a few years ago. He was actually looking at tank-car safety. And it concerned a lot of things, but I'm in Austin. We're sitting there having a beer or whatever...
ROBERT...and my suggestion to him to use to look at the old medieval chainmail.
ROBERTThat's a quick retrofit. OK, thanks, Diane.
REHMOK, Robert. Thanks for your call. And to you, Robert.
SUMWALTWell, thank you very much, Robert, for the question. I was looking madly through my notes on the -- on the labeling for the -- let's see, did you ask about for the Castleton, let's see -- you were asking about the classification. And I'll get the answer for that for you very shortly. So, anyway, I...
REHMHe was talking about rerouting and saying that that's likely not possible.
SUMWALTYes. And so, you know, the rerouting, what we're proposing is the railroads use the existing track to decide the least-risk situation for transporting it.
REHMSo, clearly, there is a no, no-risk situation, Marianne.
LAVELLEWhen you're dealing with oil, there's never no risk. You've -- since I've been writing about safety regulation, the thing that we have the most difficulty in dealing with is a low-incidence risk that has high consequences. And that's what we're really -- we're talking about here because the majority of oil gets to its destination just fine. But, when there's an accident, the -- it can just be a catastrophe, like what happened at Lac...
REHMAll right. Let's go to Idaho Falls. Kade, you're on the air.
KADEGood morning. I just wanted to make a comment that -- I have a unique insight I think -- I am a crude-oil hauler out of North Dakota. And the product that is hauled is so corrosive that, no matter what the material is, it weakens, you know, the container that it's shipped in. And so, I think, the theory of the argument that you should strengthen these materials is kind of an engineer's dilemma when the real problem is the accident in the first place. So accidents are termed accidents because they're preventable, right? So...
REHMOne would hope.
KADEYeah, absolutely. So, in the trucking industry, we do have a saying. You know, there's no accident that's not preventable. You know, it looks to me that there's a lot more things that the locomotive industry could do and the trucking industry could do to increase safety standards as far as, hey, you know what, maybe for oil trains, they need to have more staff.
KADEYou know, the train needs to be manned 24 hours a day, whether it's in a depot or whether it's in transit, to make sure people aren't falling asleep at the wheel, so to say. I think the accident prevention is going to give you better results than, you know, trying to bulk up your cars or...
REHMAll right. All right. Thanks for calling, Kade. And to you, Marianne.
LAVELLEWhat he said about the corrosive nature, I just think that there's going to be more and more attention to that. It's always been known in North Dakota that their groundwater is very salty. It's a health risk there, actually. And we'll be waiting to see what the results of these tests are. I believe, every accident, it's not just one thing that happens. I think Robert probably can talk about this. It's many things.
REHMWell, and of course the environmental results we haven't even touched on yet, Marianne.
LAVELLEThe environmental results of...
LAVELLERight. What's happened, like at Lac-Mégantic, was not just an explosion that leveled the town and killed 47 people, but the oil poured into the waterways, et cetera. And there just is a huge cleanup that they've had to engage in there.
BOOKBut I think what we're getting at is that there's a lot of different types of regulation going on at once. Just to sort of paint a simplified landscape for the listeners, there's the railcar issue -- the railcar integrity issue, which is number one and obviously the hardest problem really, given the stock we have. Number two is this corrosion versus composition versus labeling issue, right, classification, corrosion and composition, very much something in process. And the third is operational guidance. What do the railroads have to do differently? What do the shippers have to do differently?
BOOKIn order, sort of going from last to first, they're easiest to do. So the federal railroad administration has already issued new guidelines -- so has the regulator in Canada -- about operational things you can do to simplify and improve operations and minimize risk. The classification issue underway. Railcars, longer tale, because it's such a complicated issue.
REHMOK. But, the complications spillover, then, to the construction of the XL Pipeline. How do you construct that pipeline in a way that can ensure that there are not the kinds of accidents happening below a city, below a town, considering the volatility of this crude oil sands from Canada. Is there any way to really, really know that when or if you construct that pipeline, it's going to be safe, Marianne?
LAVELLEThe Keystone XL Pipeline, the proposer of that, TransCanada, they will tell you they have taken all of these steps. They actually rerouted the pipeline away from the Nebraska Sandhills. But, again, you're not going to have a zero risk situation there. And I think, more relevant to our discussion, you're not going to take away the issue of what we do about these moving pipelines, the crude-oil trains. If we continue to produce more oil at the rate that we're doing...
REHMYou just can't do it all through this pipeline.
LAVELLEOr any one pipeline or any one mode of transport.
SUMWALTDiane, thank you. The gentleman asked, the caller asked, if we prevent the accident, then we don't have to worry about the effects of the accident. And we at the NTSB, as I said earlier, we're interested in a multifaceted approach to safety. And so we've called, in addition to the three recommendations that we issued last week, we've been calling for other things to prevent accidents, such as positive train control. We're calling for cameras in locomotive cabs. We're calling for greater track inspection requirements.
SUMWALTAnd we feel that, if the accident occurs, the single, biggest mitigation factor can be to have these DOT 111 tank cars. We think that we're not just calling for one or two things. We're trying to take a multi-disciplinary approach to rail safety. By the way, the previous caller, Robert, asked what the classification of the crude oil is. It's classified as UN1267.
REHMAll right. To Jim in Washington, D.C., you're on the air.
JIMDiane, you put your finger on it when you asked that question about population centers. I live about six blocks from the U.S. Capitol, and the rail line runs right between my home and the Capitol. I think a lot of people don't realize that the major freight rail line between Florida and New York runs right through downtown D.C., right next to the mall and next to the Capitol.
JIMAnd so the line is tunneled under Capitol Hill, but it's elevated down here in the southwest. And so it's a perfect terrorist target. And every time we drive under these elevated trains and we see these long strings of black tankers, it's really frightening. I tend to step on the gas, you know, just to get out of here. So my point is, we've never received so much as a brochure or a flyer on what to do if there were a terrorist attack or an accident. We've never been invited to a briefing. It just feels like no one is really looking out for the people on this stuff.
LAVELLEOne of the recommendations that NTSB has had for quite some time has had to do with really informing emergency responders about what's on the train because really the system -- I couldn't believe it when I heard it -- they have a paper manifest really, on the locomotive. And that's where the list is. And in the Cherry Valley accident, most of that list was wrong. Even though they can electronically...
REHMWhat do you mean, it was wrong?
LAVELLEWhat was in the cars did not match up with what was on this list.
REHMAnd how does that mislabeling occur? That's what I want to know.
LAVELLEListen, we have the...
REHMIs it fraud?
LAVELLEWe have the electronic ability. I think it could easily just be mistakes. I think that we have the ability to, when you scan out at Walmart, to know what -- they can keep track of their inventory. We have to do the same with rail and have an electronic system that emergency responders can tap into. And the NTSB has been asking for that for years, correct, Robert?
SUMWALTYou're exactly right.
BOOKWell, I'm very sensitive to the caller's perception of risk. I mean, our offices are on Capitol Hill. And one thing you get down there is that there's a sense of risk constantly -- probably no safer place from terrorists in the country, however.
BOOKThe interesting question is, is whether you need to have community meetings to do something to improve safety, in terms of teaching people how to respond in the event of an accident or whether what you really need to do is effectively do what Marianne just talked about, was just to make sure that the first responders, who are in the position of addressing an accident, should it unfortunately occur, actually know what to do and what they're dealing with, I think that sort of operational guidance -- much more important probably -- even though the buy-in's probably a good idea, too.
REHMWe invited the American Petroleum Institute on to the program. They said that they're reviewing the NTSB recommendations. But, quote, they said, "the first step is to prevent derailments by addressing track defects and other root causes of all rail accidents." To what extent are these rail defects the problem?
BOOKWell, on Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration published a rule requiring improved track defect inspections. That rule goes final, I believe, when it publishes and it goes out in March of this year. So that first step has been taken. And arguably, yeah, if the train goes off the rails, that's something you want to stop, no matter what it's carrying.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to Constance in Mesquite, Texas. You're on the air.
CONSTANCEHi, I'm honored. I wanted to mention something that occurred to me with some of this discussion. We're talking about perhaps retrofitting cars and perhaps trucks. I would say trucks, by extension, would be also something. Both of those would be far easier to retrofit than a pipeline. If you've got a pipeline that's inadequate, then it's virtually impossible to retrofit it, I would say, unless you're going to yank it all up. So that's another thing that I would say was against the idea of pipelines.
REHMAll right. What do you think, Kevin?
BOOKWell it is difficult to pull them out of the ground. When they have accidents, you can repair them quickly. The issue for the pipeline industry is about monitoring -- making sure that they have the mechanisms in place to capture a spill before it becomes serious. In most cases, what the pipelines are carrying for oil, don't lend themselves to this kind of volatility. You don't see this sort of explosion. It's hard to get oil to burn and explode. That's kind of the point of why this is under regulators' radar even now.
REHMWhat about gas?
BOOKWell, gas pipelines are a different story. And the local distribution companies and the transportation utilities are very good about trying to make sure that they understand what their pipelines are doing and whether they're losing gas. They can constantly improve, and they're certainly trying to.
LAVELLEThere's an interesting issue about how easy it is to retrofit these rail cars. And that is that a lot of the companies that built the rail cars no longer exist. I often think, wow, we could really have an economic stimulus here because there's such a need for this kind of -- if we're going to increase our production, there's such a need for the infrastructure to go with it.
REHMBut if these have gone out of business, haven't other companies come in to replace them?
LAVELLEWhat the oil industry would say is, not enough to do it in a very quick manner -- that there will be a backlog. And this is really -- and, by the way, it's not the railroads that own the tank cars. They're owned primarily by these leasing companies that then lease them to the customers, who would ultimately pay for the retrofit.
REHMMarianne, how do you believe our discussion this morning highlights approval or disapproval of the TransCanada, the XL Keystone Pipeline?
LAVELLEWell, it's interesting. Last week the CEO of TransCanada kind of connected the issues himself, because he said, if Keystone XL is not built, I am working and TransCanada is working on building rail terminals -- they're working -- so we'll take this Canadian oil by rail.
LAVELLEThe folks who are fighting the Keystone XL, most of them I would say, they're not really fighting a pipeline. What they're fighting is business as usual in, really, around the world. And that's our fossil-fueled, sort of, our fossil-fueled economy. And, if they shut down -- the pipeline is only one -- it's only one tangible problem. It's not the root problem they're fighting.
REHMMarianne Lavelle of National Geographic, Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners, Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board, thank you all so much.
SUMWALTThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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