Rockefeller: Shale Oil Boom Raises Serious Rail Safety Concerns

March 6, 2014

JDR Head ShotWASHINGTON, D.C. -- Below are the prepared remarks of Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV at today's Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security hearing titled, “Enhancing Our Rail Safety: Current Challenges for Passenger and Freight Rail.

The shale oil boom has dramatically changed the energy sector in our country. While the changes bring opportunities for robust economic development, they also raise serious safety concerns of shipping large amounts of crude on the railroads running through our communities.

We need to look no further than the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, this past summer to understand how important it is to make sure we properly regulate the safety of our transportation system. In Quebec, a runaway freight train killed 47 people and destroyed large portions of the city’s downtown. Here at home, an explosion in Casselton, North Dakota, last December burned for more than 24 hours and required the evacuation of more than 1,500 people. 

These incidents make it clear there can be enormous dangers when shipping crude. We have to know more about the volatility of crude from the Bakken region and how to manage it. Other concerns include proper labeling of crude and the capacity of current tank cars to mitigate explosions, or contain them. So, while the economic benefits may be immense, the safety shortcomings can be even greater. 

Many of you know that safety was my highest priority when I became Chairman of the Commerce Committee. And it still is today. Let me be clear: I am committed to guaranteeing that everyone in the business of transporting goods by rail – including each of our witnesses here today – makes safety their highest priority as well.

Rail safety has improved in recent years, with last year being one of the safest on record. Yet, we are still seeing far too many catastrophic accidents occur. Which leaves us with one critical question – how do we prevent that next accident from happening? With crude shipments by rail rapidly increasing, and if current practices continue, it’s only a matter of time before another incident occurs.

I am aware that you are all in the process of taking steps to answer that critical question. The focus, particularly among industry, must be on safety. We owe this to the millions of people whose communities these freight trains travel through every day. 

I would like to thank all of you for being here today and I look forward to hearing your insights and recommendations. I cannot be clear enough that we must be doing everything to have as safe a rail system as possible.