Better Communications Latest Minnesota Response To Oil Transportation Issues


By Don Davis

North Dakota oil is a regular discussion item around the Minnesota Legislature, with improving communications among oil transportation companies, public safety officials and state government the latest topic.

Primarily, lawmakers have concentrated on how to deal with oil spills, explosions and other disasters, but they also have begun dipping into financial issues.

Wednesday, the Senate transportation committee plans to take action on a trio of bills to improve railroad and pipeline oil safety. Issues in the bills include increasing the number of state rail inspectors from one to three or four, funding railroad crossing improvements, providing better training for first responders such as firefighters, improving communications and requiring pipeline companies and railroads to do more to prepare local officials for oil emergencies.

On Tuesday, the Senate environment committee approved a Sen. Vicky Jensen, D-Owatonna, bill meant to improve communications and coordination when oil spills from railroad cars and pipelines.

A Dec. 30 train derailment near Casselton, N.D., “focused public attention” on oil being transported from western North Dakota’s Bakken oil field, Jensen said. About eight 100-car-plus trains a day carry oil through Minnesota, with half a dozen traveling through the Twin Cities.

Pipelines carry thousands more barrels of oil through many parts of the state.

While railroads say replacing older model oil-carrying railcars with sturdier ones will take years, Jensen said that improving communications among those responding to oil spills can improve things quickly.

Railroads, in particular, have worked with Jensen on the bill and offered no opposition. But pipeline companies complained in Tuesday’s Senate committee meeting that some provisions in the bill double up on requirements already in place on the federal level.

“Maybe we need to step back and see what is available in Minnesota,” said Erin Roth of the Wisconsin-Minnesota Petroleum Council of the American Petroleum Institute.

Roth suggested that pipelines work with railroads on oil spill response. He said both have equipment, but there is no coordination.

Adam Wojciehowski of Enbridge Partners, a pipeline company, suggested that before lawmakers pass Jensen’s bill that they “assess what has been duplicated” with federal law and rules. A “more in-depth dialog” is needed before the bill passes, he said.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she is concerned that the state could become “an outlier” with different rules than other states in regulating oil transportation that also involves other states.

Pipeline and railroad companies said they already offer safe oil transportation, as well as providing training to local public safety workers.

Peter Lidiak, with the petroleum institute, said pipelines have reduced corrosion 8 percent in recent years, making pipelines safer.

Sixty percent of North Dakota oil that moves by rail already is placed in newer, safer cars, Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co. told committee members.

A Senate jobs bill has been amended by a proposal from Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, to study how North Dakota oil affects Minnesota.

The amendment sets aside $150,000 to study several potential oil impacts, including economic, democratic and fiscal costs to the state. It also requires a look into “economic challenges and opportunities” to Minnesota.

The study must specifically address policy and financial issues in northwestern Minnesota and cities that are near the North Dakota border.

Eken’s study would be conducted by an independent organization with expertise in the subject.