Waltham-based Global Partners LP, one of the largest distributors of petroleum in the Northeast, said it will require trains carrying crude oil into its terminals to use stronger, safer tank cars that meet tougher standards recommended by the rail industry.
The move by Global, announced last week, follows several fiery crashes involving trains transporting crude oil from North Dakota, including one that recently forced the evacuation of parts of downtown Lynchburg, Va. Earlier this week the US Department of Transportation issued a nonbinding safety advisory recommending that rail companies pull older cars out of service for crude shipments and use sturdier rail tankers less likely to rupture — and explode.
The amount of crude traveling the nation's rails has skyrocketed in recent years as US oil production has boomed, particularly in North Dakota where the drilling technique known as fracking has opened reserves trapped in shale rock formations. As of June 1, Global Partners said, only rail tankers meeting heightened safety standards proposed by the Association of American Railroads will be allowed to carry crude into its terminals in Albany, N.Y. and outside of Portland, Ore.
About one-third of the more than 40,000 tanker cars used to transport crude today meet the higher safety standards.
"This is going to [continue] to be a method of transportation for energy and it has to be done safely," Global chief executive Eric Slifka said. "Not everybody has these cars. And if they don't have them, we're not going to deal with them, that's all."
The railroad association's proposed standards call for thicker walls and shields at both ends of tanker cars to better protect against punctures and rollovers, and those built since 2011 generally meet those standards. Federal regulators are reviewing the railroad association's recommendations, but have not adopted rules that would require the design changes.
Both regulators and industry officials, however, say that even these tougher design standards may not be adequate to safely transport highly flammable crude.
"When you begin to look at cars that are derailing at speeds of 30-, 40-miles-an-hour, it's very difficult, it's a big ask, to expect that a tank car get hit [and] not be breached," said Karl Alexy, staff director of the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety, said during a recent forum in Washington.
Railroads last year transported some 12 billion gallons of crude across the country last year — more than 40 times the 285 million gallons moved in 2008.
Global, which began 81 years ago as a one-truck heating oil distributor in Dorchester, has capitalized on the North American drilling boom, expanding its facilities to accept more crude shipments from places like the Bakken region of North Dakota. In 2013, the company moved nearly 500 trains of crude oil and ethanol — roughly 95,000 barrels per day — through its Albany, N.Y. facility alone, financial filings show.
The firm has two dozen terminals in Massachusetts that hold heating oil, gasoline, diesel, and propane, but not crude. Global had hoped to ship ethanol by rail to a terminal in Revere, but withdrew that proposal in the summer of 2013 after residents and officials in Cambridge, Somerville, and other communities protested the cargo was too dangerous to move through densely populated areas.
Since 2006, there have been 17 seriousrail accidents involving the transportation of crude and ethanol. One of the worst occurred last summer in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border, that killed 47 people. Following the derailment in Virginia last week, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring rail companies operating trains with more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude to notify emergency response officials in states through which the trains travel.
Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, a trade group in Washington that represents railroad suppliers, including tank car manufacturers, said the industry has spent millions researching how to make tank cars safer with better steel and components.
Simpson acknowledged regulators' concerns that these improvements might not be enough, but said that the new, sturdier cars "if operated safely, will carry crude and ethanol safely."
Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group based in New York, said more needs to be done to make rail transportation of fuels safer. Among the most necessary changes: phasing out older tank cars and getting the industry to reroute hazardous shipments of crude around cities.
In Canada, regulators have ordered rail companies to phase-out or retrofit older, puncture-prone tank cars within three years.
"These mile-long trains are hurtling through people's communities and posing enormous risks," Bailey said. "Meanwhile, it feels like the [US] government has been sleepy in its response."