Tracking crude oil

Don't people have the right to know what's rumbling down the tracks?

Crude oil production has reached record levels in the United States, and trains are carrying more of the highly-flammable cargo than ever. Given that reality — and the worrisome potential for large-scale disaster when these trains are involved in accidents — the public deserves a full accounting of what might be rumbling past their backdoor.

Monday's ruling by Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill requiring that a mandatory accounting of the volume of crude oil and the frequency of transport within Maryland be disclosed to the general public is a welcome development. The alternative would have been to leave Marylanders in the dark about these hazardous shipments, perhaps until a devastating accident — like the July 6, 2013 derailment in Lac-Megantic in Eastern Quebec that resulted in the death of 47 people — caused sufficient outrage.

Just how great a threat crude oil trains pose to Maryland has never been especially clear — mostly because public information has been so sketchy. Companies such as CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway, both of which operate in this state and opposed the release of data to the general public by the Maryland Department of the Environment in the ongoing court proceeding, have argued that Maryland law doesn't require such disclosures and the information should be treated as proprietary.

MDE deserves some credit for advocating for disclosure. Even in the General Assembly, the issue has gotten mixed reaction. Legislation to require MDE to merely study the potential risks and impacts of a potential crude oil spill from a train accident passed the House of Delegates but failed to win approval in the state Senate four months ago.

One community where the information might be of particular interest is Cecil County where tanker cars regularly run crude oil from western states to oil refineries in Delaware crossing the northeast tip of Maryland in the process. But it should also attract attention in the Baltimore area as trains periodically haul oil to a barge terminal in Fairfield near I-895. A second such terminal in Fairfield has been proposed by a Houston-based company, but its application was put on hold by MDE this spring.

Beyond disclosure, however, there are limits on the extent to which states can regulate interstate commerce. The risks posed by crude oil transport are ultimately the responsibility of the federal government. And while some safety improvements have been pursued in recent years (many of the voluntarily), protections to date appear woefully insufficient given the enormity of the threat.

Reducing the length of these crude oil trains (some of which can reach 100 cars), taking more of the older, less safe tank cars out of service immediately, lowering travel speeds and reducing the volatility and explosiveness of Bakken crude (a problem because of "thinners" used to dilute it) are among the steps the federal government ought to be taking.

Oil companies and their advocates in Congress have claimed for years that the U.S. should welcome hydraulic fracturing and the rise of oil production in the Dakotas and elsewhere because of the jobs created and the specter of energy independence. But there is something clearly wrong when this highly profitable enterprise depends on a potentially vulnerable transportation system to move its hazardous cargo — not to mention relying on the 25 million or more Americans living near the potential "blast zone" around railroad lines to remain blissfully unaware of the extraordinary dangers they may be facing.

And it's also another example of how checkered President Barack Obama's record on energy has become. As much as he has recognized the dangers of climate change and his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sought remedies, Mr. Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy has been maddeningly inconsistent, opening up vulnerable areas to offshore drilling including the Arctic and along the East Coast from Virginia to Georgia.

Judge Fletcher-Hill's ruling is a small step (and may yet be appealed) but at least it's a movement in the right direction. Are communities and their first responders prepared for a train disaster on the scale of what happened in Canada? Disclosure of the facts will at least allow Marylanders to judge for themselves whether they are sufficiently safe in their own homes.

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