U.S. federal regulators say they've issued an emergency order requiring tests of crude oil before shipment by rail in response to a string of train explosions and fires since last summer, including the Lac-Mégantic disaster last year.
The order also would place crude oil under the two most protective sets of hazardous materials shipping requirements, rather than allowing some shipments to be treated as less dangerous, the Federal Railroad Administration said.
"Today we are raising the bar for shipping crude oil on behalf of the families and communities along rail lines nationwide. If you intend to move crude oil by rail, then you must test and classify the material appropriately," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
Shippers already had to classify oil shipments based on the risk for explosion or fire, but federal investigators found that many shipments were being misclassified as less dangerous. The order now requires testing for classification before shipment.
Government investigators found crude oil being transported from the Bakken region was misclassified in samples taken from 11 out of 18 truck shipments en route to rail loading stations, federal officials said earlier this month.
Hazardous materials shipments are supposed to be classified into one of nine categories depending on the risk involved. If the materials are misclassified, they could wind up being shipped in less protective rail tank cars, and emergency personnel might follow the wrong protocols when responding to a spill.
A runaway train with 72 tank cars of Bakken oil derailed, exploded and burned in the downtown area of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border in July. Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings destroyed. Oil trains have also exploded and burned in North Dakota and Alabama in recent months.
Lac-Megantic a wake-up call
The Lac-Megantic accident was a wake-up call for safety officials, who were surprised by its severity. Tests taken of Bakken oil since the accident shows it is more dangerous than some other types of crude. The oil in the train that derailed in Lac-Megantic was misclassified as "packing group III," which the safety administration equates to minor danger.
U.S. crude oil production is forecast to reach 8.5 million barrels a day by the end of 2014, up from 5 million barrels a day in 2008. The increase is overwhelmingly due to the fracking boom in the Bakken region.
U.S. freight railroads transported nearly 234,000 carloads of crude oil in 2012, up from just 9,500 in 2008. Early data suggest that rail carloads of crude surpassed 400,000 in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.
The emergency order calls for "minimum testing" of any large bulk quantity of crude that it being transported.
That includes determining the crude's flash point, how corrosive it is to steel and aluminum, and whether the dangerous and explosive gas hydrogen sulfide is present. It also requires determining the percentage of flammable gasses in the crude — an issue of heightened concern for the oil from the Bakken region, which has higher levels of natural gas than other crudes.
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview last week that industry standards for how those tests would be conducted could take several months to finalize.
"Current law requires that we test and characterize" crude oil, Gerard said. "We're taking this in a much more granular, detailed way to look at the factors we test, how often we test."
Gerard said testing practices among different oil companies have varied.
"Some are very, very frequent," he said. "Others are intermittent, based on where the oil is coming from, where's it's stored."