UPDATE (Jan. 22, 2016): Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its proposed rule to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production on public and tribal land. The rule would contribute to the Obama administration’s strategy for cutting methane emissions while also reducing waste of this non-renewable resource.
Methane naturally occurs in oil wells and is released during the drilling process. Well operators can capture the gas at the well site and send it to processing plants where it is refined and sold as natural gas. But many operators instead burn the gas onsite (which causes air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions) or simply vent it. Methane has several times the global warning potential of carbon dioxide, so venting the gas significantly contributes to climate change.
Additionally, state, federal, and tribal governments lose out on royalty revenue when methane is vented or flared. In 2013, an estimated $330 million worth of methane was leaked, vented, or flared from federal and tribal lands – money that could have gone toward repairing infrastructure and improving schools.
The BLM rule would require operators to adopt available technology that would reduce flaring and venting while also correcting leaks in infrastructure. Additionally, it would establish guidelines for paying royalties to governments when gas is flared.
Unlike the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rule, which only addresses new and modified sources, BLM’s rule would cover all new and existing oil and gas infrastructure. Existing sources, including wells, pipelines, and compressor stations, contribute 90 percent of the industry’s methane emissions.
We applaud BLM’s efforts to curb climate change and protect our natural resources.
UPDATE (Aug. 20, 2015): Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced its proposed rule to cut future methane emissions from oil and gas production. Methane contributes 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities that are warming the earth, so the rule is a step towards meeting our climate change targets.
However, disappointingly, the rule does not apply to existing wells, pipelines, refineries, and other infrastructure, which together contribute 90 percent of current total methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas industry produces almost a third of all methane emissions, so exempting existing facilities is problematic.
The rule also targets the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that pollute the air and contribute to smog formation, but as with methane, it only cuts them at new and modified oil and gas sources, and a limited number of existing sources.
Last week the, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to reduce methane emissions from landfills, which contribute nearly one-fifth of all U.S. methane emissions.
To date, however, there are only voluntary guidelines for limiting methane from the agriculture industry. Agriculture produces 36 percent of total methane emissions and is the single largest source of methane in the U.S.
On Jan. 14, the Obama administration announced its strategy to reduce oil and gas industry methane emissions by 40-45 percent over the next decade. This is a key element of the administration's Climate Action Plan for reducing greenhouse gases and curbing climate change.
After states like Illinois and California took the lead on banning microbeads in cosmetics and consumer products, leaders in the U.S. House and Senate are moving forward with national legislation curbing the sale of products that contain the tiny plastic particles. Microbeads can pollute water and hurt wildlife and human health.
In a major victory for public health and the environment, President Obama took final action on the Keystone XL pipeline and rejected the risky project on Nov. 6. The move comes after pipeline company TransCanada tried to game the system earlier in the week by asking the Obama administration to suspend the company's permit application. The administration denied that request, which was seen as an attempt to delay a final decision on Keystone XL until after Obama was out of office.
UPDATE (Oct. 23, 2015): Earlier this week was “Back to the Future Day,” the exact day and year that Marty McFly time travels to in the iconic 1980s movie trilogy. The film makers celebrated human innovation by imagining a world where people embraced new technology (some that actually did evolve).
But in the real 2015, we have life-saving technology at our disposal that the railroad industry is refusing to adopt. By December 31, 2015, all railroads carrying passengers or hazardous materials were supposed to adopt Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that responds when conductors fail to observe speed limits or other signals. PTC could have prevented the horrific train derailment in Philadelphia this spring that killed 8 passengers and injured over 200 more.
But more than five years after rules requiring these safeguards were issued by the Federal Railroad Administration, railroad companies have petitioned for an extension, complaining about the high cost of installation. Congress added a three-year extension to adopt PTC to the highway funding bill, which would allow companies to apply for an additional two years to install the technology. Given the industry’s already sluggish pace, it may take at least another five years before PTC is installed on the majority of train routes.
In the meantime, railroad profits have skyrocketed due to the increase in oil-by-rail, meaning the industry clearly has available funding to implement the technology. Simultaneously, fiery oil train derailments have increased, providing even greater urgency to adopt PTC. It’s time for the railroad industry to join the future and adopt technology that will save lives.
UPDATE (Oct. 9, 2015): The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is expected to release new standards today that address track inspection and maintenance. This follows the administration’s eight-month investigation into the February oil train derailment in West Virginia, which found that broken rail caused the derailment.
Broken rails account for approximately 15 percent of train derailments – more than any other cause. Yet railroad companies are failing to identify and fix problems. In fact, CSX – the company that owned the track where February’s derailment occurred – identified issues with the section of track in the weeks preceding the accident but failed to take action.
The new standards will require railroad companies to fix rail issues or slow trains when crossing sections with safety issues.
UPDATE (May 1, 2015): The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released their final rule today on crude-by-rail safeguards. These rules will apply to trains carrying certain amounts of flammable liquids, including Bakken crude oil and other flammable substances like ethanol.
The rule requires all tank cars constructed after Oct. 1, 2015 to have shells that are at least 9/16th of an inch thick. Older cars that do not meet this standard must be retrofitted within the next two to 10 years, depending on car type.
The rule also requires rail companies to adopt advanced braking systems over the next six to eight years, including electronically controlled pneumatic systems (ECP) that allow train cars to brake simultaneously and decrease stopping distances. The rule sets an overall speed limit of 50 mph for oil trains and a 40 mph limit for trains passing through densely populated urban areas while carrying cars not yet meeting the new tank car standards.
Unfortunately, the rule does not require railroad companies to notify state and local officials when they are moving crude and other hazardous materials through their jurisdictions. Instead, state and local decision makers must contact railroads to ask for routing information, and the companies are required to provide officials with the industry contact person who can address their questions. This is an unnecessarily roundabout way to disclose crucial information to those charged with protecting residents and businesses from health hazards and destruction in the event of an oil train derailment or explosion.
A bill introduced yesterday by seven Senate Democrats seeks to eliminate this communication gap and grant much-needed resources to local emergency response teams. It would require railroad companies to provide real-time data on train movements and would also raise revenue for advanced training on responding to oil train accidents. The bill would also speed up the phase-out of older, more dangerous tank car models.
UPDATE (Mar. 25, 2015): Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation today that would create stronger crude-by-rail safeguards than those currently under review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Among other things, the Cantwell-Baldwin bill would require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to limit the volatile gases in crude oil that is transported by rail. The PHMSA and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rules currently under review require thicker tank car shells but do not regulate the crude itself, which is highly volatile and can explode during accidents.
The Cantwell-Baldwin bill would also ban certain classes of older tank cars, immediately removing 37,700 unsafe cars from use. It requires railroad companies to alert state and local emergency response officials when moving crude through communities and significantly increases fines for violations.
Original post from 2-18-2015
A 300-Foot High Fireball from an Exploding Bakken Oil Train: When Will New Rail Safety Standards Be Approved?
On Presidents' Day, a train carrying volatile crude oil derailed in Fayette County, West Virginia, igniting several railcars and creating a fireball 300 feet high. While no one was seriously injured, the incident is a stark reminder of the need for stronger safeguards to protect communities near the tracks that transport crude oil.
Former Freedom Industries President Gary Southern and another former Freedom president and owner Dennis Farrell entered guilty pleas at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia today over their roles in the January 2014 chemical spill. Southern could face up to three years in federal prison and is scheduled to be sentenced in December. In addition to Southern and Farrell, four other former Freedom Industries former owners and senior officials have plead guilty to criminal charges and will also be sentenced in December to up to one year in prison.