Federal regulators ruled Monday that federal law supersedes Washington state requirements regarding the transportation of crude oil by rail.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) ruled that the Washington state vapor pressure limit of 9 psi for crude oil presents an obstacle to transporting product that meets existing federal hazardous materials regulations.
A study by Sandia National Laboratories cited in the ruling concluded that imposing vapor pressure limits would not reduce the risks of transporting crude oil and other flammable liquids by rail.
Washington state passed legislation in 2019 setting a vapor pressure limit for crude oil moved by rail. Crude oil volatility is measured by its vapor pressure, or its tendency to evaporate and emit flammable gases when temperatures rise.
Bakken crude, typically rated at 13.7 psi, would require additional processing before it could be unloaded in Washington state. North Dakota and Montana officials argued that the more stringent standard enforced in Washington state effectively blocked sale of crude from their states.
The rise of Bakken crude oil transport by rail has given rise to a growing number of high-profile train accidents. In July 2013, a 72-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed and ignited in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying much of the downtown area.
Since then major fires involving crude transported by rail have occurred in Aliceville, Alabama; Casselton, North Dakota; Lynchburg, Virginia; Galena, Illinois and Heimdal, North Dakota. In February 2015, 20 tank cars updated since the Lac-Megantic disaster derailed and burned in Mount Carbon, West Virginia.