AG Becerra Wants Trump Administration to Make Crude-Carrying 'Bomb Trains' Safer

Railroad tanker cars sit outside of the Chevron refinery July 14, 2008, in Richmond, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Attorney General Xavier Becerra wants federal regulators to place new rules on the oil industry in an effort to reduce the chances of a train carrying crude oil from exploding in California.

Becerra has joined prosecutors in five other states in lobbying the U.S. Department of Transportation to place limits on the vapor pressure inside train cars that carry crude -- limits the industry opposes.

"A derailment or explosion in California could put countless lives at risk and cause major damage to our land and waterways," Becerra said Thursday in a statement where he called crude-by-rail cars "bomb trains."

California regulators, environmentalists and some residents have expressed concern that some oil train routes pass through urban areas, especially the San Bernardino-Riverside and San Luis Obispo regions.

California, New York, Illinois, Maine, Maryland and Washington recently filed comments with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is considering a vapor pressure standard.

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The attorneys general in those states point to a number of derailments, explosions and fires, including one in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people.

They want the federal agency to bar oil trains from traveling unless their cars carrying crude have a vapor pressure of 9 pounds per square inch or less.

"History suggests that a protective vapor pressure standard is warranted to prevent future train disasters," wrote Mihir Desai, New York assistant attorney general in a filing with PHMSA.

The six states say that vapor pressure is a key driver in the oil's explosiveness and flammability.

Environmental groups have long been opposed to the use of oil trains.

Since the federal government shows no signs of outlawing their use, an effort to keep them safer is a good step, according to Jared Margolis, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The reason why the states are so worried about vapor pressure is because they know there are going to be accidents," Margolis said in an interview Thursday. "They know that existing regulations are not sufficient to prevent accidents."

But the oil industry says those existing rules adequately address the safety of crude by rail.

The proposal is "premised on fundamentally unsound assumptions about safety risks," wrote David Friedman, vice president of regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, in the organization's filings, urging PHMSA to reject the limit.

"Vapor pressure is not the key cause of ignition events in rail accidents," Friedman said.

The American Petroleum Institute says 99.997 percent of crude-by-rail shipments arrive at their destination without incident.

"API and our members do not believe this proposal will enhance safety in transportation," said API spokesman Reid Porter in an email. "Our collective focus should be on preventing accidents. Proper infrastructure maintenance and transportation practices are the only ways to reduce accidents."

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