Oil train bills: A political collision?

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Tanker cars can carry oil or LPG.

As oil-train accidents continue to mount nationwide, the Washington House and Senate could be on a collision course over oil transportation safety.

The Washington House passed an oil transportation safety bill 60-38 Thursday evening. That sends the House bill to the Senate for consideration. But the Senate seems likely to pass its own oil-train bill, a measure sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. His bill has received committee approval and is awaiting a full Senate vote.

The House bill, requested by Gov. Jay Inslee and sponsored by Seattle Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell, is more sweeping than the Senate measure. Farrell’s legislation covers oil trains plus a long list of other oil-transportation safety matters — including spill-related emergency training and responses, tugboat regulations for oil shipped in Washington’s waters, information to be provided to emergency agencies and an oil-tax hike from the current four cents to 10 cents per 42-gallon barrel.

Ericksen’s bill is somewhat similar, but has no public disclosure requirements about planned shipments, as does the Farrell’s bill. And it largely focuses on oil moved by rail, although it does call for a study and training work on the safety of marine transportation of oil. Ericksen's bill extends the existing per-barrel tax to cover oil transferred by rail but does not increase the per-barrel tax. A split over the public notification provisions was at the heart of a House-Senate stalemate on this issue last year.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a press release Friday praising the House bill. “In the course of two years, oil train traffic in Washington has gone from shipping zero gallons of crude oil to well over 700 million gallons,” he said. “And that number will just go up.” We need the oil industry to step up with more robust safety and preparedness measures and make sure we have resources to respond in the event of an oil spill or explosion.”

He called the tax hike “a modest increase – less than one-tenth of one percent of the current barrel prices.”

Farrell said, “To protect the health and well-being of the many Washingtonians living near oil train routes and preserve our natural spaces, it is crucial that we equip our emergency responders with the resources necessary to handle the ever-increasing amounts of oil being carried through our state by train.”

The House vote came the same day as 21 cars on a 105-car oil train derailed near Galena, Ill. Five cars caught fire, and the blaze continued to burn today. Associated Press reported that the burning cars had been retrofitted to meet increased federal safety requirements. No one was injured. On Feb. 16, 27 cars on a 109-car oil train derailed in West Virginia, causing fire-balling explosions and the evacuation of more than 100 nearby residents. Also last month, newspapers nationwide published an Associated Press story on a previously unpublicized 2014 federal report that predicted an average of 10 oil train accidents will occur annually during the next several years.

In 2013 and 2014, the United States had four oil train accidents that produced fires — one in North Dakota, one in West Virginia and two in New England. A July 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec killed 47 people.

Despite the differences in the House and Senate measures, both bills have drawn at least some interest across party lines. In the Senate, two Democrats on the Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee declined to endorse Ericksen’s measure but recommended that it be moved ahead for further consideration. Inslee’s statement referred to the House vote as “bipartisan”; at least nine Republicans voted in favor of the measure.

Originally posted March 6 at 4:13 p.m.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8