Minnesotans have always known how important safe, reliable rail service is to our state’s economy. Farmers and businesses have come to depend upon rail as an indispensable method of moving Minnesota products across the state and to markets around the world.
But in recent years, the large railroad companies have quickly ramped up the number of rail cars carrying highly volatile and flammable Bakken crude oil from North Dakota through Minnesota to refineries in other states.
While this change has meant more profits for the railroads, it’s also taken up room on trains normally used by our agriculture shippers, and it’s forced temporary shutdowns at Minnesota coal-fired power plants when backlogged rail service left utilities unable to replenish coal stockpiles.
But perhaps most concerning to me—and to a great many families and public officials across Minnesota—is the unprecedented danger posed every day by shipping so much volatile oil through communities that may or may not be prepared for the extremely explosive crashes that come when an oil train derails.
Since the beginning of February, we’ve had five serious oil train accidents in North America—including a fiery explosion in North Dakota that forced the evacuation of a small town. Another train carrying Bakken oil exploded in Quebec a few years ago, killing 47 people. I want to do everything I can to ensure that a similar tragedy doesn’t happen in Minnesota.
That’s why, for more than a year, I’ve worked with Minnesota communities and their leaders so that I can understand the dangers and voice their concerns, and it’s why I’ve pressed the railroads and federal regulators to act quickly to protect Minnesotans from the dangers posed by oil trains. Every day, these trains pass through our communities. And while we’ve already seen some good steps implemented to improve safety measures, it’s clear to me that there hasn’t been enough action.
Pressing for an “All of the Above” Approach to Rail Safety
There are many steps we can take to make oil trains safer, and I’ve urged federal transportation officials to take an “all of the above” approach to ensure that oil travels more safely.
I’ve called for safer tank cars, and for rerouting trains that are carrying this highly explosive oil through populated areas. I’ve also pressed to make sure that the volatility of the crude itself is reduced to make it safer before it’s loaded onto the trains.
More recently, I’ve called for the railroads to provide communities and their first responders with all the information they need to quickly react in the event of an accident.
In response to my calls for action, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has taken some useful steps to help keep our communities safe. In May, it announced new standards for trains carrying flammable fuels.
The rules require that new tank cars have thicker shells and other improvements to make them safer in the event of a derailment. And within five years, all trains carrying crude will have to meet this standard. While this is a step in the right direction, we can’t slow-walk the rollout of safer tank cars, and I’ll push to make this happen more quickly.
We also know that the light crude oil passing through Minnesota each day from North Dakota is much more volatile than heavier crudes produced elsewhere. That’s why I’ve supported efforts to reduce the volatility before it is shipped through our state.
Producers can actually condition the crude at the well, where they can get rid of a lot of the volatile natural gas liquids. In fact, in April the state of North Dakota started requiring them to do just that. But I’ll be pushing our federal regulators to reduce volatility even further to make sure we get the strongest possible protections for Minnesotans.
The new federal rules include requirements to reduce operating speeds and to improve routing decisions so that when oil trains can avoid Minnesota’s most populated areas, they do.
I also want local officials and first responders to have as much information as possible about oil being shipped through their communities. While the new rules require railroads to share information about oil shipments, that information often doesn’t make it to local communities. Because of that, I’ve joined several Senate colleagues in urging DOT to strengthen disclosure requirements. The DOT responded with a promise to do just that.
Railroad service is an important part of Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure and is critical to our state’s economy. That’s why I’ll continue to do everything I can to safeguard Minnesota communities from the dangers posed by the unprecedented expansion of volatile crude oil being shipped through our state.
Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.