It’s the type of oil at the heart of America’s energy boom. It’s the oil that makes North Dakota one of the priciest places to live in the country. It’s the oil that exploded in July after a 72-car freight train derailed in Canada, killing 47 people.
And now, Bakken shale crude oil is also the most explosive compared to oil from 86 other locations worldwide, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Wall Street Journal.
The findings raise “new questions about the safety of shipping such crude by rail across the U.S.,” and “concerns that more dangerous cargo is moving through the U.S. than previously believed,” the Journal said, speculating on whether safety regulations on railcars need to be strengthened. Just last month, federal regulators found that Bakken shale oil from two companies had not been properly labeled before being loaded on cross-country trains. Those same regulators are currently conducting their own investigation into whether the oil is particularly flammable.
Allegations of increased volatility in Bakken shale light crude oil were raised after a number of high-profile train derailments and subsequent explosions, including the deadly Lac-Mégantic, Canada disaster. Federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) speculate that the oil’s explosive nature may be due to either particular properties of the oil, or added chemicals from the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract it. PHMSA has yet to release specific details of its investigation with regard to the oil’s flammability.
The Wall Street Journal, however, conducted its own investigation, using data from the Capline Pipeline in Louisiana. The Capline tested crude oil from 86 different locations around the world for something called “vapor pressure,” which reportedly translates into the oil’s ability to evaporate and emit combustible gases. The Wall Street Journal’s report notes:
According to the data, oil from North Dakota and the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas had vapor-pressure readings of over 8 pounds per square inch (PSI), although Bakken readings reached as high as 9.7 PSI. U.S. refiner Tesoro Corp., a major transporter of Bakken crude to the West Coast, said it regularly has received oil from North Dakota with even more volatile pressure readings — up to 12 PSI.
By comparison, Louisiana Light Sweet from the Gulf of Mexico, had vapor pressure of 3.33 PSI, according to the Capline data.
On average, North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil had a volatility rating of 8.56 PSI. The next most volatile oil was Brent crude from the North Sea, with a volatility rating of 6.17 PSI. The third most volatile, 4.8 PSI, was Basrah Light oil from Iraq.
As much as 90 percent of the North Dakota’s crude is expected to move by freight rail in 2014, according to North Dakota’s Mineral Resources Department, which recently announced record oil production of almost 1 million barrels per day — or approximately 5 percent of total U.S. oil consumption. A million barrels a day is more than the capacity of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport 830,000 barrels per day.
As the Centre for Research on Globalization notes, most of the oil shipped by rail in North America consists of U.S. light crude, which is the primary type produced in North Dakota. Light crude, according to CRG, is “hydrogen-heavy and carbon-light,” which enables it to flow easily but also makes it “alarmingly explosive.”