Oil Train Rule Rollback May Spark Legislative Response

 The Trump administration decision to roll back an Obama-era rule requiring electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on oil trains is likely to revive legislative attention in Oregon to require railroads to carry “worst-case” insurance and create spill-prevention plans in light of the 2016 derailment in Mosier.

The Trump administration decision to roll back an Obama-era rule requiring electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on oil trains is likely to revive legislative attention in Oregon to require railroads to carry “worst-case” insurance and create spill-prevention plans in light of the 2016 derailment in Mosier.

When they reconvene next February, Oregon lawmakers may revisit legislation to require railroads to carry “worst-case” insurance following a Trump administration decision to roll back a decision to require electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on oil trains.

Railroads opposed the rule issued by the Obama administration in 2015 in response to explosive oil train derailments, claiming the cost of ECP brakes exceeds their safety benefits. The Trump administration cited a National Academy of Sciences study that backed up railroad industry claims.

The decision sparked an angry response from Northwest officials, environmental organizations and Columbia River Gorge residents in light of the June 2016 derailment of an oil train in Mosier that spilled 42,000 gallons of crude oil and igniting a fire. Union Pacific blamed the derailment on a faulty rail fastener, not the train’s braking system. Environmental activists insist ECP brakes would help because they control all train car brakes simultaneously.

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The rule rollback is the kind of flash-point issue that can explode into legislative action, possibly in both Oregon and Washington. Governor Brown and Governor Jay Inslee issued a joint statement calling the rollback “reckless and dangerous.” Friends of the Columbia River Gorge said the Trump administration decision points to the need for “strong legislation” requiring railroads to carry worst-case insurance and create spill prevention and crisis response plans. Similar legislation was proposed in the 2017 Oregon legislative session, but failed to pass.

States have very limited jurisdiction to regulate railroads. For example, states lack the ability to ban oil trains. Brown did sign a bill in 2015 that requires railroads to notify states of oil train movements.

Majority Democrats who control the Oregon House and Senate already have a major environmental issue on their plate in the short 2018 session – a cap-and-invest proposal designed to ratchet down industrial greenhouse gas emissions while generating $1.4 billion in new revenue. California already has an emissions credit system in place, which presumably Oregon would join. Business interests are opposing the legislation.

The main event for the 2018 Oregon legislative session will be responding to a potential voter rejection of a pair of hospital and health insurance assessments to sustain the Oregon Health Plan. Defeat of Referendum 101 could blow a big hole in the state’s budget.

By February, Oregon lawmakers should know the fate of GOP-backed tax-cut legislation, including a provision to eliminate state income taxes as a deduction on federal tax returns that would disproportionately harm states such as Oregon that rely heavily on income tax revenues.