Monday, July 13, 2015

Crude Oil Trains and Terrorists

In researching my post on Saturday about the OMB’s extension of Bakken train notification ICR I had a chance to read the joint comments [.PDF download] submitted about that ICR extension by the Association of American Railroad (AAR) and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). The authors had requested that the OMB keep the comments confidential because of the inclusion of two documents marked For Official Use Only (FOUO). For some reason the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) did not honor that request.

The Documents

The titles of the two documents are listed below (sorry no links are available):

(U//FOUO) Increased Use of Railways to Transport Crude Oil May Lead to Acts of Environmental Extremism, FBI Private Sector Advisory, July 18, 2014; and
(U) Situational Awareness: Potential Threat to Freight Rail, TSA Intelligence Note, March 31st, 2014

The reason that they were included in the AAR/ASLRRA comments can be summed up by a quote from the FBI Advisory:

“Extremists may use publically available information to identify potential transportation routes or to target new or existing terminals, facilities, businesses, or funding entities associated with the oil industry through actions intended to cause economic losses.”

The AAR/ASLRRA comment on the ICR made the point that based on this information and that found in the TSA intelligence note, that routing information should be considered Sensitive Security Information and thus protected from public release. While the DOT has made highly-hazardous flammable train (HHFT) routing information SSI, the reporting requirements of that provision will not take effect until April 1st 2016.

Environmental Activists

Most people in the environmental activist community have two reasons to object to the continuing use of unit oil trains. First is their opposition to the use of crude oil products for energy purposes as they contribute to the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere; both when it is produced and transported and when it is used as an energy source. Secondly, they are concerned about the effects on the environment of the spills and fires that accompany crude oil train derailments.

Typically the types of actions that they take to express their opposition include letter writing campaigns on regulations like the recent HHFT regulations (something like 90,000+ comments were submitted), media campaigns, and civil disobedience type activities like those seen last week.

As with any large group of activists (and the environmental movement is quite large and well funded) there is a small subset that is no longer satisfied with the progress that is being made by legal action and civil disobedience. It is this fringe element that the FBI was addressing in their advisory. Even those fringe elements are unlikely to try to cause a derailment that could result in an oil spill/fire.

I would not be surprised to hear that these extreme elements might try to cause damage to tracks or trains that would stop or delay the delivery of crude oil. My concern would be that because of a basic misunderstanding of the physics of train operations that they would do some sort of damage with the intent of stopping a train that would actually derail a train because the crew did not have enough time to safely stop the train.


There is a very small subset of the fringe of the environmental activist community that would feel justified in creating a local environmental catastrophe if it would lead to the shutdown of the crude oil trains. Most of these environmental terrorists have taken on relatively small targets with arson attack (car dealerships and expensive vacation developments). A derailment attack on a crude oil train would be a major escalation for these folks.

The TSA Note points at a more likely terrorist attacker, those trained by the Islamic State (IS). The Note shows an improvised explosive device that would seem to be designed for this type of attack; a magnetic sticky bomb. These devices have been captured in India where they were intended to be deployed against rail tank cars. There are no reports of attacks where they have actually been used and I have my doubts about their utility against even DOT 111 tank cars for a number of technical reasons.

Having said that, it is clear that rails are susceptible to any number of derailment type attacks that have been employed in various places around the world. Almost any of these types of attacks could be employed against a crude oil unit train with fairly spectacular results.

Fortunately to date the IS related attacks or planned attacks in this country have been conducted or planned by IS wannabes, not actual trained IS operatives. The type of people that we have seen in these operations have been ill-equipped by training or experience to conduct an effective attack on a crude oil train. Until we see IS or other jihadi extremist group start exporting trained teams to the United States it would seem unlikely that the crude oil trains would be targeted by their US grown compatriots.

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