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Cause of Crude-by-Rail Explosions Identified

The Wall Street Journal's senior energy reporter, Russell Gold, is interviewed on NPR about the February 16 derailment and explosion in West Virginia of an oil-train hauling 109 tanker cars of Bakken crude from North Dakota.
March 6, 2015, 8am PST | Irvin Dawid
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NPR host Melissa Block begins by asking Russell Gold about the lab report on the Bakken crude that he also wrote about two days earlier for The Journal. [Listen here.]

"(It) showed that it had a vapor pressure of about 13.9 pounds per square inch, which is very, very high for oil," answers Gold. "Most oils or average oil might be somewhere around six pounds per square inch. That's actually above—a new state rule [PDF] says you can't ship oil if it's above 13.7." The rule takes effect April 1.

However, similar regulations are not include in the new federal energy rules that the Department of Transportation (DOT) is drafting. "Federal emergency rules adopted last year imposed new safety requirements on railroad operators but not on energy companies," Gold writes.

While Sarah Feinberg, the acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), "has supported requiring the energy industry to strip out more gases from the crude oil before shipping it to make the cargo less dangerous, such measures aren’t currently included in current or proposed federal rules."

Unlike some of the major issues regarding the transport of oil, such as getting the authorization to build the Keystone XL pipeline, the problem of removing the gases is not that difficult.

"What's involved in the process of trying to reduce excess gas from crude oil?" asks Block. "And how expensive a process is that?"

"Well, it's not very expensive at all—it's cents on the barrel," responds Gold. "And it's really not very difficult to do this. And if you look at a place like Texas, quite regularly they'll use a combination of heat and pressure to separate out the gases at the well site. But in North Dakota, that does not happen as much. There's no infrastructure to do anything with the gas, so the oil producers prefer to keep the gas in the oil and just ship it to markets."

Two other aspects of shipping crude are discussed in the interview - the tendency of oil trains to explode and the relative safety of shipping it by pipeline. Block asks:

How atypical would it be for a train like this one in West Virginia to—not just derail and spill—but to burst into flame and explode?

"Well, that's really what's been puzzling us since these trains started to burst into flames starting in Quebec, when 47 people died in 2013," responds Gold. "Oil is not supposed to burst into flame and explode—certainly not creating ten- and 20-story tall fireballs, but that's what we're seeing."

As to whether pipeline supporters are correct in claiming that shipping oil by rail or truck is more dangerous, Gold states, "I don't think there's any question about that. It is more dangerous." He describes how oil drilling began in 2008 in the Bakken Play where no pipelines existed that "created an entirely new industry": crude-by-rail.

While pipelines may be relatively safer, building them is more difficult than building the infrastructure to accommodates shipping by rail, as the economics makes it difficult. Even the Bakken Pipeline has run into difficulty.

Correspondent's notes:

  • Just as this post was completed, word has come that yet another (BNSF Railway) oil train has exploded, "this time in northern Illinois near the Mississippi River, south of Galena," reports Mother Jones. A local ABC affiliate reports that the crude was from the Bakken field.
  • While Russell Gold doesn't mention it, it would appear that Canadian oil sands crude has a volatility problem as well, according to Oil Change International which describes a derailment on Feb. 14, two days before the West Virginia oil-train explosion.
    • A Canadian National Railways train carrying diluted bitumen (dilbit) from the tar sands in Alberta derailed in northern Ontario, with 29 of the 100 cars involved in the accident. Seven caught fire, spilling some 6,000 barrels of oil. Such was the intensity of the fire that it burnt for six days. [The West Virginia fire burned for three days].
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Published on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 in NPR
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