Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Crude Oil Transportation Issues – Dealing with Public Perception

Anyone that thinks that the recent HHFT final rule from PHMSA is the final word on protecting communities from catastrophic accidents involving crude oil shipments by rail just doesn’t understand the emotional scope of the problem. For many activists and politicians the large fires and explosions that we have seen over the last couple of years at these spectacular accidents is just a public exemplar of what they see as the endemic problems with big oil and big chemical.

Unfortunately, I think that the industries (both the railroads and the shippers) see this as more of a technical issue to be solved and a set of risk-benefit calculations to be made. A slightly different approach can be seen at the upcoming Crude & Hazardous Liquids by Rail Safety Congress to be held in Houston in August.

It is billed as: “The only summit to focus on class 3 flammable liquids by rail safety, delving  into all areas of the supply chain and all foreseeable future impacts.” And a quick look at the conference flyer indicates that there will be the pretty typical comprehensive look at the technical issues related to the problems. It will include sessions with industry leading experts on:

Rail car design specifications & safety advantages;
Rail car regulation impacts;
Trans-loading safety and technology;
Risk assessments;
Railroad steps;
Emergency response plans; and
Future of rail takeaway.

But the conference web site also acknowledges the ‘public outcry increasing pressure on rail safety improvements’ and it does mention the need to ‘implement new strategies to inform and assure the public of safety’. There is a specific session at the conference that addresses the topic of developing “a suitable and practical approach to inspire public confidence”. It will address four topics:

Understanding the public's major concerns surrounding flammable liquids by rail to inform industry plans to minimize public backlash;
Educating the public on the safety record of rail to further develop trust and understanding from those ‘outwith’ the industry;
Scrutinizing the strategies used by the chemical industry in the 1980's to transfer potential methods to be utilized for crude and ethanol; and
Revealing possible approaches to increase public and government knowledge on flammable liquid dangers to facilitate more effective industry practices.

This presentation and this conference will not, of course, solve the problem that many people and organizations don’t trust the oil and railroad industries to solve these safety problems with the transport of flammable liquids by rail. It is important, however, that the perception issue is being recognized and that industry is trying to take steps to address the problem.

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