A House Republican suggested the Transportation Department is hiding a stealth global-warming policy behind the guise of a rail-safety crackdown.
Federal regulators are writing new safety standards for trains that carry crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale formation, part of a broader regulatory initiative that follows a string of derailments and explosions on trains shipping the fuel. The regulators have increased their focus on the flammability of the fuel, as well as other risks of moving it by rail.
But Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California sees an ulterior motive: an effort to cripple fossil-fuel development in the name of a global-warming "theory."
Rohrabacher, who has called global warming a "fraud," leveled the charge at senior Transportation Department regulator Timothy Butters during a House Science Committee hearing on oil from the Bakken formation, which is moving around North America by rail in large volumes.
The agency's efforts, Rohrabacher said, are "perhaps a facade to obtain what we clearly have as a goal of this administration, which is to reduce America's use of fossil fuel, even though it is now being presented to us as something about safety."
Rohrabacher accused Butters of refusing to answer direct questions during the hearing, during which panel Republicans challenged his department's flammability assessment of the Bakken crude.
"You just won't answer anything "¦ because the agency may be involved in a play based on global-warming theory, trying to, again, suppress the usage and the use and availability of fossil fuels, and letting that be in the background, forcing situations and forcing people like you to have to go through those verbal acrobatics not to answer a question," Rohrabacher told Butters.
Butters, who is the deputy administrator of the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, disputed the allegation. He said that his agency is focused on the topic because of accidents—including last year's derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec—and because of the amount of oil now moving around American railways.
His testimony noted, "At any given time, shipments of more than 2 million gallons are often traveling distances of more than 1,000 miles."
"This material poses a risk. We are not trying to restrict the movement. We want to make sure that it moves safely. That is our role," Butters told Rohrabacher.
"Energy and hazardous materials are critical to this nation's economy. We strongly support that and we believe that. But our role is to ensure that this energy is moving safely through transportation. These crude-oil lines that carry these large volumes of flammable crude oil, which this material is, we need to ensure that it moves and it gets to its destination without incident," he said.
The nation's fracking boom has helped push North Dakota's oil production above 1 million barrels per day, a five-fold increase over the last half-decade.
The federal Energy Information Administration, citing North Dakota Pipeline Authority data, says that between 60 percent and 70 percent of the oil produced there has been moved to refineries by rail during the first half of this year.