AG Hunter supports North Dakota in its oil transportation fight with Washington State


Attorney General Mike Hunter has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation in support of North Dakota and Montana’s position that Washington state’s new law regarding crude oil transport interferes with federal law and stands to cause major economic harm to energy-producing states.

Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that requires Bakken crude being shipped through the state by rail to have a lower vapor pressure limit. Attorneys general from North Dakota and Montana promptly petitioned the Trump administration, requesting the federal government overturn the law. (see OK Energy Today from July)

Attorney General Hunter said the new law violates federal laws and stands to harm states like Oklahoma.

“This law targets the energy industry and places significant burdens on energy-producing states, like Oklahoma,” Attorney General Hunter said. “By creating a new classification for crude oil below a certain vapor pressure, this law gradually implements a ban on facilities in the state that load or unload the oil and creates an economic burden on companies. Additionally, the law violates federal law. Regulating the rail transportation of hazardous materials is the job of the federal government, not the states.”

In the letter, the attorney general notes that shipping energy products by rail is inherently an interstate effort. “States that have access to port cities are uniquely situated to harm landlocked states,” the letter says. Allowing states to ban the transportation of products like Bakken crude oil would effectively transfer national and international energy policy to a few coastal states.

The letter also points to the federal preemption statute that says states may not create laws that make compliance with federal law impossible or are an obstacle to compliance with federal law. Aside from an express waiver from the Secretary of Transportation, a state cannot avoid this expansive preemption. The Hazardous Materials Regulations are national standards and must be uniformly applied across jurisdictional lines.

The letter further explains that if Washington’s law is upheld, it is likely other states will implement their own laws, rather than complying with a federal standard.

“If states can create new classifications of hazardous materials, a patchwork of laws will undermine the uniform federal law, and states with special geographic advantages will wield their newfound power to our disadvantage,” the letter concludes. “We urge you to prevent this law from becoming precedent before it affects states beyond Washington and hazardous materials beyond Bakken Shale oil.”

Federal Study Undercuts Washington Law

The logic behind the new law lowering the vapor limit for Bakken crude traveling through the state of Washington by rail was in response to several train derailments and explosions in recent years. Officials believe by removing the gases in each rail car, it would reduce the risk of derailment and explosions.

However, a recent federal study by Sandia National Laboratories found that vapor pressure is not a significant factor in the severity of train derailments and explosions.

(see OK Energy Story from August)

To read the attorney general’s letter, click here.

Joining Oklahoma on the brief are the attorneys general of Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.