U.S. sway affects Canada CBR safety focus

Written by David Thomas, Canadian Contributing Editor

Transport Canada's selection March 11, 2015 of new tank car specifications is surely a harbinger of the choice the White House will make later this spring from among the options proposed by U.S. rail and hazmat regulators.

The clue is in Transport Minister Lisa Raitt’s revelation that Canada could not secure U.S. support for advanced braking systems for oil trains—a clear inference that agreement has been reached on the other specifications for a future TC/DOT-117 tank car.

Sticking a “TC” in front of the U.S. “DOT-117” designation makes it pretty certain that Canada has been advised that the White House has made up its mind on 9/16-inch-thick hulls, full head shields, thermal insulation, and enhanced rollover protection for top fittings. This was the option preferred by the Association of American Railroads, which naturally welcomed the Canadian decision as the benchmark for a necessarily common North American standard.

However, Canada’s May 2017 deadline for getting DOT-111s out of crude oil service effectively scuttles the U.S. regulators’ strategy of shuffling the oldest cars to Alberta tar sands service as new cars come on stream.

The rule package proposed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) anticipates DOT-111s remaining in crude oil service until October 2020: “. . . some DOT(-111) Unjacketed and CPC 1232 Unjacketed cars (about 8,000 cars) will be transferred to Alberta, Canada tar sands services. No existing tank cars will be forced into early retirement.”

The two recent Ontario explosions of CN unit trains hauling Alberta tar sands crude had already exposed PHMSA’s incomprehensible misunderstanding of bitumen blended for transport. (“Dilbit” is bitumen diluted with naptha or other liquid petroleum gases to make it flow; “synbit” is partially refined bitumen intentionally boosted with highly explosive hydrogen gas.)

So, the White House now has to figure out what to do with the thousands of old DOT-111s that will be banned in 24 months from crude service, bitumen or otherwise, north of the 49th Parallel. Either these cars will be allowed to haul crude in the U.S. well beyond their originally proposed 2020 withdrawal, or they will, indeed, be forced into “early retirement.”

Canada’s transport minister offered another hint of regulatory rebellion among the political tribes ranging above America’s northern frontier. Raitt said that a requirement for ECP (electronically controlled pneumatic) unit train braking will re-emerge in new rail operating rules for high-hazard trains in Canada. The rail industry in the U.S. is resisting the PHMSA recommendation for electronic brake controls, but Canada could independently require them for domestic or cross-border service.

Unlike the U.S., where the regulatory process requires months of wide-open public consultation and interminable iteration of rule proposals, Canadian rail regulation is by executive fiat, with an optional cover of voluntary consultations with handpicked industry experts. Under the country’s parliamentary system, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has direct, personal power over both the elected legislature and the departments that implement law, including Raitt’s Transport Canada.

Harper’s government has an established record of hostility toward the country’s railways and tight ties to the oil industry that provides his Conservative Party its financial and ideological power base. What other government would spend millions of taxpayer dollars on foreign newspaper advertising to promote a private pipeline scheme?

Harper’s oil-dependent government is moving quickly on tank cars and railway operating rules to preserve a vital transportation option for Alberta’s tar sands. Harper (and the U.S. State Department) argued that rail was an obvious alternative should the Keystone XL pipeline project ultimately be denied. Should the White House accede to the rising insistence of lesser lawmakers that crude oil be deweaponized before loading, rail will cease to be the existential lifeline for tar sands bitumen.

Fixing Bakken crude is a technically easy matter of applying the same treatment or “stabilization” that is routine for pipeline transport in North Dakota, and for any mode of transport in Texas. However, rendering Canadian bitumen safe for rail carriage is problematic. The alternative to dilution with naptha is heating with steam during loading and unloading—a messy procedure that requires internal steam coils be built into tank cars.

Neither Canada’s new tank car spec nor any of those under consideration by the White House includes a requirement for steam coils. Anyway, the steam-heating alternative is impractical on a large scale, given its requirement for extra-cost tank cars constructed specifically for low-value bitumen. Options may not exist at all for synbit, the hydrogen-injected variety of processed bitumen.

Expect the Harper government to intensify the blame it directs at the railroads as it tries to deflect attention away from the explosive goop (it’s certainly not natural crude) shipped from Alberta’s tar sands.

The government has summoned CN to testify before a parliamentary committee about the causes of this winter’s spate of tank car derailments. Track condition, train lengths, and speed will be the focus of government-side interrogators; there will be not a word from Conservative members of parliament about the tar sands industry’s intentional spiking of bitumen with naptha and hydrogen.

Perhaps this is Washington’s opportunity to regain credible leadership in oil train reform: If Canada can bar DOT-111s at the border, the U.S. could, and should, prohibit spiked bitumen from American rails.

(I suggest this as a patriotic Canadian and proud resident of Alberta who benefits directly from bitumen taxes and royalties. Like most Albertans, I simply don’t wish to profit by placing other people and places at unnecessary risk.)

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