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Critics press industry to make Bakken oil safer

Cleanup commences on April 30, 2014, after a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured, but three tank cars went into the James River, spilling 30,000 gallons of oil and igniting a fire. (Curtis Tate / TNS)

MOORHEAD, Minn. — North Dakota environmentalists want oil companies to reduce volatile gasses in Bakken crude. Regulators, however, say they’re taking a different tack that’s cheaper for the industry and still improves safety.

The gasses remain a flashpoint for producers, environmental and safety groups concerned about transporting the highly flammable Bakken crude. Oil train shipments from the Bakken have skyrocketed in recent years, heightening the worries.

Environmental groups have been pushing the state to require that producers install equipment to stabilize the crude using a process that heats the oil to a higher temperature to release more gasses.

North Dakota officials, however, say the more stringent heating requirement would cost oil companies as much as $2 per barrel.

Instead, state inspectors starting April 1 will check oil at well sites to make sure the vapor pressure runs no greater than 13.7 pounds per square inch of Reid Vapor Pressure, the measurement standard of volatile gases in crude oil. Oil involved in a recent West Virginia derailment and explosion had a vapor pressure slightly higher, 13.9 psi.

The North Dakota standard is tougher than the 14.7 psi federal standard for crude oil, although it’s still more volatile than gasoline sold in Minnesota in the summer, which has a maximum vapor pressure of 9.

Regulators say their method will maintain safety but cost an estimated 10 cents a barrel, compared to the $2 per barrel for the stabilization gas removal process. Companies found violating the new regulation can be fined $12,500 per day.

The industry disputes that Bakken crude is more volatile, but says most North Dakota crude meets the new standard already.

“I think a lot of people have wondered, well, is this going to cure the problem. And our answer is that by itself, it is not the cure,” said Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources.

The new, lower vapor standard is a step in the right direction but safer rail cars are also a critical part of the solution, Helms added. The federal government is considering new rules for safer tank cars that might include thicker steel shells and larger pressure relief valves.

“If you combine our lower vapor pressure standard with the these high capacity relief valves we should be able to get away from these boiling liquid explosive vapor incidents which create the large explosions if and when we have a derailment,” Helms added.

Larger relief valves could allow rapidly expanding gases to escape, preventing rail tank cars from exploding. But critics point out those volatile gases could still catch fire. A newer tank car with improved safety features, the CPC 1232, has been involved in at least two recent oil train derailment and explosion incidents.

Environmentalists argue North Dakota could make the oil much safer.

“The bottom line profitability of the oil industry is trumping all the rest of us, our safety,” said Don Morrison with the North Dakota environmental group Dakota Resource Council.

Much of the light crude oil in Texas is stabilized before it’s shipped, he added. “To stabilize the oil so it is safer like they do in Texas, oil companies are going to have to spend some money. That is true. But isn’t that the cost of doing business?”

The North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents the oil industry, did not respond to an interview request.

In December 2013, the potential for disaster became very real after train cars of Bakken oil derailed, caught fire and exploded outside Casselton, N.D., near the Minnesota state line. Derailments and fires involving Bakken crude since then have heightened the worry.

Fred Millar, a Washington-based lobbyist and consultant on hazardous materials transportation, contends the new North Dakota standards would not have changed the outcome of a deadly 2013 oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec in Canada.

Train cars of Bakken crude involved in the Lac Megantic explosion and fire had a vapor pressure of about 9 psi, according to Canadian investigators.

A search of public records and news reports identified 14 derailments involving crude oil trains in the past two years in North America. Fire was involved in nine of the accidents.

New regulations are unlikely to stop crude oil train accidents, Millar said.

“Anybody who’s kind of hoping that somehow there’s going to be this magic bullet or some new set of federal regulations that’s going to make this situation safe,” he said, “I have bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.”

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 100.5 FM or online at MPRNews.org.

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