Lobbying on Crude-by-Rail Doubles Over Year as PHMSA Final Rule Nears

Get complete, dependable coverage of the regulation at every stage in the chemical life cycle, including comprehensive news on REACH, the Toxic Substances Control Act, up-to-date HAZMAT guidance,...

By Rachel Leven

April 21 — The number of entities lobbying Congress and the administration on requirements for safely transporting crude oil has increased more than 100 percent from the first three months of 2014 compared to the same time frame in 2015, public records show.

The increased lobbying by cities and rail and energy trade associations and companies may have been sparked by increased public interest and media coverage, the upcoming finalization of a federal rule and additional congressional action itself addressing crude-by-rail safety, environmental and industry lobbyists and representatives told Bloomberg BNA. They disagreed on whether the increased lobbying would translate to crude-by-rail laws passed by Congress.

“Passing any legislation in this Congress is going to be a challenge—on any issue, not just this issue,” Jessica Ennis, a senior legislative representative for Earthjustice, told Bloomberg BNA.

The spike in lobbying on this issue follows an increase in the frequency of crude oil train derailments— incidents that have caused property and environmental damage and, in some cases, have harmed public health. Increased crude oil production in areas without adequate pipeline infrastructure has pushed much of the oil onto rail to be shipped, meaning this transport has similarly become more frequent.

Bloomberg BNA conducted its review of Senate Office of Public Records lobbying disclosures using the search term “crude by rail.” The deadline for disclosing lobbying activities from the first quarter of 2015 was April 20.

Lobbying Numbers

Lobbying on the transport of crude oil increased 105 percent year over year from the first quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of 2015, with at least 20 entities and 41 entities lobbying on it in the respective time frames.

That increase occurred quickly. Lobbying on the issue increased 86 percent from the last three months of 2014 to the first three months of 2015—from at least 22 entities to 41 entities.

There was a similar bump from the fourth quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2014, from six lobbying entities to 20 lobbying entities, respectively.

As recently as 2012, only one company—BNSF Railway Co.—disclosed lobbying on the issue using the terms “crude by rail.” BNSF declined to comment for this article.

Interest by Public, Industry 

Lobbying disclosures largely indicate interest by industry, whether rail or energy. For example, in the first quarter of 2015, companies and groups such as BNSF, CSX Corp., Shell Oil Co., BP America Inc., the Association of American Railroads, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council all lobbied on the issue.

Ennis said there is also a mounting concern from the cities and towns. The public is learning more about the issue with each derailment and realizing how it could affect their own communities, she said.

“Many cities and towns that are struggling with this issue right now just don’t have the resources to lobby on it,” Ennis said. “This is where it becomes so important for members of Congress to become more involved on this issue.”

Ennis said it is likely at least part of the increase could be attributed to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration rule that would govern transport of certain flammable liquids, including crude oil. As with any agency’s decision to “tak[e] on a big issue like this,” there is generally “a flurry of activity” both in lobbying the administration and in lobbying Congress, she said.

Frequency of Derailments

Ken LaSala, director of government relations and policy for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said his own group began focusing more on crude-by-rail due to the increased frequencies of the derailments over the last two to three years, such as the July 2013 derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and the increased action on Capitol Hill over the last six months to a year.

LaSala said it was important to ensure that local jurisdiction have the resources to plan, train, prepare and equip themselves for these incidents.

Meanwhile, Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, told Bloomberg BNA that the freight industry’s lobbying has been in response to “a heightened recognition of the importance of this issue.” The freight industry has sought to provide relevant information to Congress regarding the industry’s efforts and commitment to move crude oil safely, Greenberg said.

“We recognize that members of Congress who represent members of the public and federal agencies are both important to this industry and that it’s important to ensure that we are responding to any questions that they have,” Greenberg said.

American Petroleum Institute Spokesman Brian Straessle told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail that API's members similarly are committed to working with railroads, regulators and Congress to identify safety solutions on this issue.

Congressional Action

But what this increase in lobbying means for pending legislation on crude oil by rail safety remains unclear.

Until the Transportation Department’s final rule comes out, Capitol Hill is largely in a “wait-and-see” state, Ennis said. And even after the rule is finalized, it isn’t clear whether any bills that have been introduced on the issue could become law due to congressional dynamics, she said.

One area where LaSala said there could be movement on Capitol Hill is through the upcoming surface transportation bill. That bill always has a rail safety component and, in recent years, has been where the hazardous materials program is reauthorized, he said.

“We’re waiting to see how that bill comes out and it seems like that would be a potential legislative vehicle for addressing this crude oil issue, too,” LaSala said, highlighting that certain crude-by-rail could be included in the bill or added as amendments at some point during the process.

At least one bill introduced in Congress—the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act (S. 859) from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)—is along the same lines as the rail industry’s “vision” for transporting crude oil safely, Greenberg said. However, he declined to comment on the likelihood of this bill or other legislation becoming law.

More Hazmat Transport 

Whether Congress passes legislation, the crude oil derailments could bring attention to the needs of first responders, LaSala said.

To a certain extent, these incidents have offered LaSala’s team an opportunity to educate more lawmakers regarding the needs of fire stations for all hazmat transport incidents, he said.

“The number of incidents we’ve had and the focus on crude oil has served as an example regarding the challenges we face,” LaSala said. “Overall, our members are doing a good job of educating their members of Congress that there’s more than crude oil by rail.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com