By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republicans have backed away from a controversial proposal that would have repealed a new federal safety rule requiring oil trains to be equipped with advanced new braking systems.
Republicans eliminated the proposal from a multi-year surface transportation bill, after coming under pressure from the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers, whose support they need for passage of the legislation, Senate aides said on Wednesday.
In late June, the Republican-controlled Senate Commerce Committee voted to repeal the requirement that trains carrying crude oil install electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, less than two months after the administration unveiled sweeping new rules aimed at preventing catastrophic oil train derailments.
The railroad and oil industries, including interests controlled by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, mounted a powerful lobbying campaign to overturn the ECP requirement, saying it would slap an unnecessary $3 billion cost on railroads, oil refiners and others.
BNSF Railway Co, which Buffett owns through his Berkshire Hathaway Inc holding company, is the leading U.S. railroad for crude oil shipments and would have benefited most from cost relief if the Republican bid had been successful.
Senator John Thune, Republican chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, had proposed repealing the ECP requirement last month with a measure that orders new research to justify the technology's benefits until a permanent decision is made.
But the legislation unveiled this week by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell preserves the ECP requirement. It still requires the study of braking technologies, and calls on the transportation secretary to repeal the ECP requirement eventually if the research does not justify its use.
Democrats and administration officials had expressed concern that if the requirement was repealed now, and research later proved ECP's merits, the rulemaking process to revive the technology could be delayed unnecessarily, aides said. Railroads are required to begin implementing ECP brakes in 2021.
"We came to a solution that allows the rule to proceed on the current implementation schedule as long as the testing validates the requirement,” Thune said on Wednesday in a statement issued to Reuters.
Leading the Democratic resistance was Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who told Thune at a hearing last week that he agreed ECP brakes should not be required if ineffective.
"We just shouldn't repeal them until we know that they're not a wise investment," Manchin said. "We can't afford to be wrong on this one."
The Association of American Railroads, a trade group that represents more than 20 freight railroad companies, said the Senate bill still recognizes "the critical need to make sure adequate data is gathered on this technology."
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Bernard Orr and Meredith Mazzilli)