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Published January 20 2014

Forum editorial: Suddenly regulation is in fashion

Isn’t it amazing how nearly everyone involved with railroad trains that move crude oil have become acolytes of regulation? And of all things, industry and its reliable allies in government want more regulation, not less. Until now, less and/or no regulation has been the religious-like mantra of the conservative right and big business.

Exploding trains in a politician’s backyard apparently have a way of eclipsing an anti-regulation ideology that, by any honest assessment, has contributed to dangerous conditions on the rails. After all, until a fatal oil train wreck in Canada and the derailment and explosion of an oil train near Casselton, N.D., (which could have been a horrific disaster had it been closer to Casselton or 20 miles east in Fargo), the private sector and regulators seemed to be content with the status quo.

Now senators, governors, railroad CEOs, tank car company executives, and regulators from Washington to Bismarck are falling all over themselves to say the right things about the danger of volatile North Dakota Bakken crude oil on the rails. It’s not a reach to suggest they are closing the barn door after the horse galloped away.

Consider the recent past. First, the rail bed near Casselton where a Bakken oil train exploded like a series of bombs has been known as a bad stretch of track for years. It has a record of derailments. Second, tank cars that carry Bakken crude across the country were (are?) vulnerable to failure in a wreck. Third, until recently, the explosive potential of Bakken oil was considered a “myth” by at least one state regulator. Indeed, the federal agency charged with such things didn’t classify Bakken oil as highly dangerous until after the wrecks in Canada and North Dakota.

A pattern emerges: The private sector builds and sells (and customers eagerly buy) cheaper, less-safe tank cars. Volatile Bakken crude is put in such tank cars, sometimes in violation of existing regulations, but no one is checking. In effect, it’s a wink-and-a-nod relationship among the allegedly regulated and the regulators. And then they are shocked, shocked (think “Casablanca”) when the worst-case scenario actually happens.

Regulation can’t prevent every accident. But tough safety requirements for shipping hazardous materials by rail can minimize damage when a train derails. It appears the companies that profit from danger on the rails, and their pliable allies in government, are getting the message. Better late than never.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.