Ottawa is taking new and unprecedented steps to ensure oil shipped by rail is properly tested, requiring companies to vouch for its contents and keep detailed records for at least two years, following several explosive oil train accidents in the past year.
The move comes after the federal government's oversight of oil trains was shown to contain several troublesome loopholes, which oil shippers believed allowed them to send mass quantities of crude oil by rail without knowing if it was unusually explosive. That lack of testing came under scrutiny following the deadly oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., last summer, which killed 47 people.
An explanation of the change, published Friday in the Canada Gazette, says the new rules will require companies to keep better records about the oil they are shipping, including information about the types of tests used to determine how dangerous a specific batch of oil is. They will also have to keep the data for at least two years and have a specific individuals sign off on test results.
The changes could help address allegations that crude shippers from the Bakken region, which straddles North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, were not testing their products before sending them by rail. Sources told The Globe and Mail last fall that they believed federal rules contained a loophole that allowed them to skip testing requirements as long as they filled out paperwork to indicate the crude was more dangerous than traditional oil.
That revelation was part of a Globe investigation that has documented how oil from the Bakken formation can be more volatile than crude from other regions, making it more likely to explode or catch fire during an accident. The train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic last July was carrying crude from the Bakken, which investigators said acted abnormally when it exploded.
The Gazette posting explains that comments about recent federal rules on crude oil testing indicated that more clarification was needed, a sign the new rules are aimed at closing the perceived loopholes that some in the Bakken region were exploiting.
"The risk of not adopting this new requirement is that there will be uncertainty about the validity of classification tests and the only way for inspectors to validate classification would be to perform the tests themselves, which would be costly and inefficient," the Gazette posting says.
The new rules come several days after a train carrying oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed in New Brunswick, causing a fire that burned for days and forced about 150 people from their homes. The derailment, near Plaster Rock, was the third time in recent weeks that an oil-laden train has caught fire.
Some of the tank cars that derailed in New Brunswick were carrying crude that was loaded in southwestern Manitoba and originated in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It was not immediately clear whether the oil in those cars was the more volatile, Bakken type. However, both Bakken crude and crude from other formations exist in that area and are often mixed together before they are shipped.
The changes to crude oil testing rules were grouped with a regulatory shift on DOT-111 tank cars, which are commonly used to move crude oil by rail throughout North America. The DOT-111 change updates Canada's rules to match standards that are already being followed by the manufacturing industry and applies only to newly manufactured cars.
According to the Association of American Railroads, about 40 per cent of 228,000 DOT-111 tank cars carry flammable liquids such as crude and ethanol. Only a small fraction of the cars carrying the hazardous materials are built to the latest safety standards, which call for thicker, puncture-proof walls, protective shields and protected vents.
On Friday, officials decided to fight a continuing fire at the site of the New Brunswick derailment using small explosives to blast holes in several of the tank cars. A spokesman from Canadian National Railway Co. said the procedure is called a vent and burn and was used for three tank cars carrying liquefied petroleum gas – two of which were still burning before the explosions were detonated Friday afternoon. The small explosives are meant to release vapour and gas and allow them to burn off, the CN spokesman said.
With a report from Jacquie McNish in Toronto and The Canadian Press