Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and 14 other senators called on the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday to support new investment and resources for a Safe Transportation of Energy Products Fund to address existing and emerging issues related to the transportation of Bakken crude and other energy products. 

The senators also called for increased investment for inspection personnel.

“We urge you to support new funding for a Safe Transportation of Energy Products Fund, while also making needed investments to increase Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration inspection personnel,” the senators wrote.

“The rail system in the United States has seen a 6,000% increase in crude on rail since 2007 driven in large part by remarkable increases in energy development from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and Montana.

"In light of several tragic accidents involving crude-by-rail trains – including the most recent derailment and explosion of tanker cars carrying crude oil near Casselton, North Dakota – communities stretching across our country from the Midwest to coastal ports and refineries are rightly concerned about the safe movement of these combustible products.”

Wyden and Merkley joined Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Angus King, I-Maine, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Al Franken, D-Minn, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Chuck Schumer,  D-N.Y., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Chris Coons, D-Del., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and John Walsh, D-Mont. 

A Safe Transportation of Energy Products Fund was proposed by President Barack Obama this year in his fiscal year 2015 budget request for U.S. Department of Transportation.

The flexible fund is intended to address current and emerging safety issues related to the transportation of combustible energy products like Bakken Crude. 

Four years ago, very little crude oil was hauled by our nation’s railroads.  Today, more than 800,000 barrels per day – with more expected – move by rail, largely originating in the Midwest.  

Wyden and Merkley met on Jan. 24 with Oregon first-responders and elected officials to hear concerns about the increased amount of oil train traffic in Oregon. During the meeting, at the Portland Fire and Rescue Headquarters, both senators pledged to work toward better federal oversight and increased communication with local communities.

On March 6, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing exploring safety issues related to freight and passenger rail.

At the hearing, witnesses testified to the long-identified unsafe characteristics of DOT-111 rail tank cars, which are used by some shippers to haul crude oil in the United States – and were involved in major derailments and subsequent explosions of crude oil in North Dakota, Alabama, and Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

A full copy of the text is below:

April 4, 2014

Dear Chairman Murray and Ranking Member Collins:

As you begin consideration of the Fiscal Year 2015 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, we urge you to support new funding for a Safe Transportation of Energy Products Fund, while also making needed investments to increase Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration inspection personnel.

As you know, four years ago, our nation’s railroads hauled very little crude oil by rail. Now, railroads transport approximately one-tenth of U.S. crude oil output – approximately 800,000 barrels per day. The rail system in the United States has seen a 6000% increase in crude on rail since 2007 driven in large part by remarkable increases in energy development from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and Montana. In light of several tragic accidents involving crude-by-rail trains – including the most recent derailment and explosion of tanker cars carrying crude oil near Casselton, North Dakota – communities stretching across our country from the Midwest to coastal ports and refineries are rightly concerned about the safe movement of these combustible products.

A Safe Transportation and Energy Products Fund would provide U.S. Department of Transportation new flexibility to address emerging issues related to the transportation of Bakken crude and other energy products – including, but not limited to: more expeditious rulemakings, technical studies, increased rail and energy product inspections, safety mitigation and response planning, first responder training, and community outreach. Additionally, the Fund would provide needed additional resources to complete Operation Backpressure, a study of the qualities and characteristics of crude oil in the United States. Completion of this study is an important step because its results will inform future regulatory action.   

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is currently working to improve design and safety standards for the DOT-111 tank cars that transport Bakken crude oil and other hazardous materials.  Providing full funding for the Safe Transportation and Energy Products Fund is one way to support PHMSA in finalizing and implementing new rules governing the use of DOT-111 tank cars, as well as establishing a new, hardened tank car standard for the use of hauling crude oil by rail.

To further support safety improvements, we also intend to pursue full authorization of a Safe Transportation and Energy Products Fund, or similar authorities, when Congress reauthorizes rail programs later this year.  The resurgence of American oil and natural gas production has created new opportunities, but also new challenges.  Americans need to have confidence that transport safety issues are being addressed comprehensively.  

Thank you for your consideration of this critical program, which will give U.S. Department of Transportation the flexibility and resources it needs to promote public safety, react quickly to emerging issues, and protect communities across our country from future tragedies involving the movement of energy products.