Climate

Oil Producers Say Oil Train Safety Rules Wouldn’t Make Oil Trains Safer

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bruce Crummy

In this Dec. 30, 2013, file photo, a fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D.

North Dakota oil producers aren’t happy about new regulations that could force them to make their crude oil less volatile before they load it onto trains, claiming that the regulations won’t actually make shipping oil any safer.

As the AP reports, North Dakota is considering implementing new regulations aimed at reducing the volatility of crude oil by removing specific gases and liquids from the oil. The regulations would require oil recovered from North Dakota’s Bakken region to be refined further before being shipped, in an attempt to reduce the chance of the oil catching fire or causing an explosion if the train it’s being carried in derails. But some oil producers in the state don’t think these new precautions are necessary.

“To date, no evidence has been presented to suggest that measurable safety improvements would result from processes beyond current oil conditioning,” Hess Corp. spokesman Brent Lohnes told the AP.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 500 companies involved with North Dakota’s oil industry, also tried to downplay crude’s volatility. Several major train accidents have occurred in the last few years, including the disastrous derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that killed 47 people. Cutting said the crude oil in the railcars “was not the cause” of these accidents.

“Requiring stabilization beyond current conditioning practices would be a costly, redundant process that would not yield any additional safety benefits,” Cutting said.

Recent studies refute claims that oil volatility isn’t a problem for North Dakota crude, however. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration released findings in June that stated that oil from the Bakken Region, which lies underneath parts of Montana and North Dakota, might be more flammable than oil from other regions. The Bakken region produces a high-quality, light crude oil that, according to the agency, could catch fire at lower temperatures than heavier strains of oil. These findings show that it’s extremely important to properly label tank cars with what kind of oil they’re carrying before the oil is shipped, PHMSA said.

“The material must be properly classified at the beginning of the process. That determines everything,” PHMSA spokeswoman Jeannie Shiffer told Al Jazeera America.

An analysis from the Wall Street Journal in February confirmed PHMSA’s findings. The news outlet compared the levels of combustible gases in oil from Bakken and multiple other regions, including the North Sea and Iraq, and found that Bakken oil contained “several times” the level of combustible gases as other crude. Oil from North Dakota had levels of Reid Vapor Pressure — a common way to measure the volatility of liquids like oil and gasoline — that reached as high as 9.7 PSI, compared to crude from the Gulf of Mexico’s average levels of 3.33 PSI.

In May, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a lobbying group for oil refiners, released data that also found that Bakken oil was extremely volatile, due to its high level of combustible gases. But unlike other studies, the lobbying group concluded that, based on the data, this high volatility doesn’t make Bakken crude more dangerous to ship than other types of crude and Bakken oil doesn’t need new regulations to make it safer for shipment.

North Dakota’s need to decide on possible regulations on Bakken crude is imminent: up to 90 percent of the state’s oil is expected to be shipped by rail — rather than pipeline — in 2014.