US government must act now to prevent oil spills from trains

Yet another train carrying tons of unrefined oil derailed last week, this time in Lynchburg, Va. Fifteen oil cars jumped their tracks, and three tumbled into an embankment of the James River. Some of the oil caught fire, releasing a black plume into the air and prompting local authorities to evacuate the area. Some of the crude leaked into the river, which supplies drinking water to Richmond.

Energy is a dirty business, and feeding a modern economy the juice it needs to keep turning will never be risk-free. But it does not have to be as risky as it has become. The United States has started to produce huge quantities of oil out of deposits in states such as North Dakota, where energy companies are sucking it out of geological formations they had previously left untapped. Their capacity to take it out of the ground, though, has increased faster than their ability – or willingness – to transport it safely to refineries. The result, according to a McClatchy analysis, is that more oil spilled in train accidents last year than in the nearly 40 preceding years combined.

Oil trains can be massive, each carrying as much as 85,000 barrels. The volatile properties of some North American oil, meanwhile, makes it more dangerous than other sorts of crude when spilled. An accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, last July tragically illustrated this. Runaway oil cars exploded in the Canadian town, killing 47 people. Less dramatic but also worrying were subsequent oil car spills in Alabama, North Dakota and, now, Virginia.

In response to this environmental and safety threat, the government should do two things. First, it should permit, without unnecessary fuss, energy companies to build pipelines through which to transport their products so they do not have to use rail. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline is only one of many potential projects.

Second, the government must enforce tough regulations on oil cars — the sooner, the better. The Transportation Department has arrived at some voluntary new rules with rail companies that will slow oil cars down in populated areas and encourage more inspections. But it needs mandatory, enforceable standards. These should codify the voluntary guidelines already in force, and they must include obligatory car upgrades, as many in service now are too easy to puncture. Regulators should also consider a new official classification for certain types of oil products that reflect their more-volatile properties, which would facilitate proper handling and transportation.

The Transportation Department sent the White House a proposal for a comprehensive package of new rules. The administration has sat on important regulations in past election years. It must not do so this time.

Editorial by The Washington Post