The Public Service Commission has requested about $1 million in our 2015-2017 budget to start a State Rail Safety Program. This would put state inspectors on the job every day to help federal inspectors monitor the safety of the railroads in North Dakota. Other measures such as lowering speeds, improving tank cars and reducing volatility are important, but the best way to reduce accidents is to keep trains on the track. This is the goal of the inspection program.
The state Senate approved this program in our budget (SB 2008) but the House Appropriations Committee this week removed it. That’s disappointing, but the session is not over yet. I appreciate the Legislature’s scrutiny of this new program. We went through an even more in-depth process last year at the Commission before proposing it. All new government initiatives should be thoroughly reviewed.
Charges of “failed campaign promises” coming from Democrats degrade the discussion and undermine the legitimate policy reasons that should drive funding for this program. We will continue working with legislative leadership and the conference committee to restate this funding, and here is why.
The stakes are high for getting crude-by-rail transport right. The outcome is bad for things that are near a derailing oil train and in North Dakota, we have a lot of oil trains and communities near them. In January, 341 crude oil trains involving more than 37,000 tanker cars traveled along rail that potentially intersects 175 different North Dakota towns. In Bismarck, an explosive crude oil train derailment downtown could threaten both hospitals. In Fargo, Minot and other population centers as well as our small towns an accident could be devastating.
Public safety is one of the fundamental roles of government. We shouldn’t point fingers at federal agencies and insist they bear full responsibility for this local, public safety issue that is a direct result of industry growth in our state. Crude-by-rail transport is vital to the oil industry and therefore to North Dakota’s economy. Without it, producers would have to curtail production, resulting in lost jobs, revenues, economic activity and a stranding of a vital national resource.
While I remain hopeful that pipelines will ultimately provide a long-term solution to transport a majority of Bakken crude, opposition to pipeline construction by fossil fuel foes has halted progress of several major pipelines. This poses a real threat to pipeline development. Frankly, North Dakota is, and will be for years, heavily dependent on rail to transport products for our two largest industries – energy and agriculture. This is why the state needs to step up and help assure that the shipment of crude by rail is done as safely and efficiently as possible.
Both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are stretched thin to effectively oversee this growing industry nationwide. Thirty other states are partners with the FRA on rail inspections and North Dakota, the originator of nearly all crude by rail, should join them
We can’t fix every problem or guarantee there will be no more accidents, but that’s no reason to stay on the sidelines. We need to get into the game. The state needs to work with the railroads and the feds and invest in the safety of the rail system that is vital to our economy and runs through the heart of so many North Dakota communities.