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More Fiery Oil Train, Pipeline Accidents Unless Government Acts: Report

If the U.S. doesn’t quickly address the safe transportation of oil and gas, Americans could pay the price with more fiery train and pipeline accidents, according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office.

“Without timely action to address safety risks posed by increased transport of oil and gas by pipeline and rail, additional accidents that could have been prevented or mitigated may endanger the public and call into question the readiness of transportation networks in the new oil and gas environment,” found the report.

The GAO report focused on the safety of moving crude oil by train and the growing network of “gathering lines,” largely unregulated natural gas pipelines. Both have been subjects of recent investigations by NBC News. The GAO determined that the Department of Transportation had “not kept pace with the changing oil and gas transportation environment.”

Oil and gas production in the U.S. increased more than fivefold between 2007 and 2012, a boom brought on by technological advances in drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Vast volumes of oil and gas production soon outstripped the pipeline infrastructure in place to move them.

Crude producers began to load their oil on trains. More than 400,000 carloads of crude ran over North American rails in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008. But a series of explosive wrecks have raised concern about the safety of oil trains -- the worst, a 2013 derailment outside a small Quebec town, killed nearly 50 people.

A 2013 NBC News investigation found regulators had long known that the tank cars used to ship oil were vulnerable to rupture in an accident.

The DOT has since issued proposed rules to improve the train cars that carry oil. In its report, the GAO applauded the move, but emphasized safety improvements must go beyond the cars, including testing the makeup of the oil, which the DOT has said is particularly flammable.

The GAO also warned better oversight was needed over the growing network of “gathering pipelines” that move natural gas from the well. In August, an investigation by NBC News found that 250,000 miles of these lines are in rural areas and subject to little or no federal or state safety oversight, despite sometimes running beside homes.

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-- Lisa Riordan Seville and Joel Seidman