'Bomb Trains' Keep A' Rollin': Congress Punts While Dangerous Oil Cars Stay on the Rails

When DeSmogBlog reported last week that no actual petroleum scientists would be testifying at the congressional science committee’s hearing on the characteristics of Bakken crude oil, we knew the hearing was unlikely to make any substantial progress toward improving the safety of transporting this volatile oil on trains through American communities.    

Indeed, we expected the hearing would be an exercise in avoiding getting the facts about Bakken crude to further delay or avoid regulations that would require the oil to be stabilized. But what actually transpired surprised even us and bordered on the absurd.

While the hearing was conducted under the banner of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, it was co-chaired by Subcommittee on Energy chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Subcommittee on Oversight chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.)

During his opening remarks, Congressman Broun ripped into the Obama administration for denying his attempts to get “experts in the subject matter” as witnesses.

While I look forward to hearing from both panels today, I must say I am disappointed — though not surprised — at this Administration’s continued unwillingness to work with the Congress. Chairman Lummis and I invited representatives from the agencies who are experts in the subject matter because we are interested in the science behind Bakken crude. Instead, both agencies appearing before the Committee today declined to provide the witnesses we requested, sending us in their place witnesses more knowledgeable on the politics behind Bakken crude. As I said, I am not surprised, just disappointed.

After setting that tone, Broun repeatedly used this line of argument while belittling the actual witnesses. In one bizarre exchange, Broun asked Timothy P. Butters, the deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a question and then when given a scientific response, dismisses the answer.

Broun: “Is ignitability and flammability synonymous with volatility?”

Butters: “Volatility in the science vernacular is a material’s propensity to vaporize and so as a flammable liquid has a higher propensity to vaporize, then it introduces…it has a higher likelihood of ignitability.”

Broun: “Can you answer yes or no to this question?”

Butters: “I’m trying to answer the question.”

Broun: “I’ve got limited time. I’ve got several questions. Ok. Obviously you can’t answer it. Again that just reiterates my disappointment.”

Later in the hearing, when Broun was questioning Christopher Smith of the Department of Energy (DOE), he characterized his earlier exchange with Butters as the “mumbo jumbo we heard from Mr. Butters.”

These types of exchanges continued throughout the questioning with Broun demanding yes or no answers to questions that required detailed scientific responses. At one point, in his efforts to explain why Bakken crude isn’t a danger, he made the statement that “water vaporizes too so it’s not ignitable so it’s two different things here.” 

Throughout these exchanges, Broun repeatedly mentioned how he was so disappointed that the real scientists he had requested were not at the hearing.

Who were these “real scientists”? DeSmogBlog contacted Broun’s office and requested the names of the scientists who had been requested from PHMSA and DOE.

The first was Dr. Paula Gant. Gant is the deputy assistant secretary for oil and natural gas in the department of energy’s office of fossil energy. She has a PhD in economics and is not a petroleum scientist. Prior to her role with the DOE, Gant worked for the gas industry and the notorious Duke Energy.

The other was Dr. Magdy El-Sibaie, the associate administrator of the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety. While El-Sibaie does have an engineering background, his extensive experience focuses on the issues of railroad track safety, including eight years working for rail industry lobbying group the American Association of Railroads.

So the two “scientists” Broun wanted to have at the hearing actually had less experience with the issues of Bakken crude than the witnesses who testified.

Needless to say, the hearing accomplished nothing with regards to addressing the actual characteristics of Bakken crude oil. Instead, it was mostly a show of theatrics, while explosive bomb trains continue to roll through the centres of hundreds of American communities.

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