New vapor pressure rule in North Dakota fails to account for additional explosion risks

Repost from Reuters
[Editor:  Reference below is to an important new Energy Department study on the volatility of Bakken crude.  – RS]

North Dakota’s new oil train safety checks seen missing risks

By Patrick Rucker, Mar 31, 2015 4:14pm EDT

WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) – New regulations to cap vapor pressure of North Dakota crude fail to account for how it behaves in transit, according to industry experts, raising doubts about whether the state’s much-anticipated rules will make oil train shipments safer.

High vapor pressure has been identified as a possible factor in the fireball explosions witnessed after oil train derailments in Illinois and West Virginia in recent weeks.

For over a year, federal officials have warned that crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale oilfields contains a cocktail of explosive gas – known in the industry as ‘light ends.’

The new rules, which take effect on April 1, aim to contain dangers by spot-checking the vapor pressure of crude before loading and capping it at 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi) – about normal atmospheric conditions.

The plan relies on a widely-used test for measuring pressure at the wellhead, but safety experts say gas levels can climb inside the nearly-full tankers, so the checks are a poor indicator of explosion risks for rail shipments.

It is “well-understood, basic physics” that crude oil will exert more pressure in a full container than in the test conditions North Dakota will use, said Dennis Sutton, executive director of the Crude Oil Quality Association, which studies how to safely handle fossil fuels.

Ametek Inc, a leading manufacturer of testing equipment, has detected vapor pressure climbing from about 9 psi to over 30 psi – more than twice the new limit – while an oil tank is filled to near-capacity.

About 70 percent of the roughly 1.2 million barrels of oil produced in North Dakota every day moves by rail to distant refineries and passes through hundreds of cities and towns along the way.

The state controls matter to those communities because there is no federal standard to curb explosive gases in oil trains.

North Dakota officials point out that the pressure limit is more stringent than the industry-accepted definition of “stable” crude oil. They also say that they lack jurisdiction over tank cars leaving the state and that the pressure tests are just one of the measures to make oil trains safer.

“We’re trying to achieve a set of operating practices that generates a safe, reliable crude oil,” Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has said. Helms has also said that test readings for near-full containers were less reliable.

However, given different testing and transport conditions, industry officials say the pressure threshold may need to be lowered to reduce the risks.

Limiting vapor pressure to 13.7 psi in transit would require an operator to bring it to “something well below that” at the loading point, Sutton said.

The uncertainty about regulatory reach and safety has spurred calls for the White House to develop national standards to control explosive gas pressure.

“Let me be really clear,” Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state told reporters last week. “They should set a standard on volatility.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent safety agency, has already encouraged a federal standard for “setting vapor pressure thresholds” for oil trains citing Canadian findings linking such pressure and the size of explosions in train accidents.

Meanwhile, a leading voice for the oil industry is lobbying Congress to resist federal vapor pressure benchmarks.

Last week, the American Petroleum Institute urged lawmakers to oppose “a national volatility standard” and pointed to an Energy Department study that the severity of an oil train mishap may have more to do with the circumstances of the crash than the volatility of the cargo.

That same report said much more study was needed to understand volatility of crude oil from the Bakken. (For a link to the study: tinyurl.com/nvjqmxt)

The oil industry has said that wringing ‘light ends’ out of Bakken crude may keep a share of valuable fuel from reaching refineries.

Reuters reported early this month that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx took his concerns about Bakken oil volatility to the White House last summer and sought advice on what to do about the danger of explosive gases.

The administration decided that rather than assert federal authority it would allow the North Dakota rules to take root, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

(Reporting By Patrick Rucker; Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder in North Dakota; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Bernard Orr)
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U.S. EIA now reporting monthly crude-by-oil movement

Repost from The DOT-111 Reader
[Editor:  DOT-111 Reader presents a good overview and early analysis.  For original reports and charts, see The U.S. Energy Information Administration.  – RS]

U.S. Movements of Crude Oil by Rail Now Online!

March 31, 2015

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For the first time, EIA [The U.S. Energy Information Administration] is providing monthly data on rail movements of crude oil, which have significantly increased over the past five years. The new data on crude-by-rail (CBR) movements are integrated with EIA’s existing monthly petroleum supply statistics, which already include movements by pipeline, tanker, and barge. The new monthly time series of crude oil rail movements includes shipments to and from Canada and dramatically reduces the absolute level of unaccounted for volumes in EIA’s monthly balances for each region.

EIA is initiating the new series with monthly data from January 2010 through the current reporting month, January 2015. CBR activity is tracked between pairs of Petroleum Administration for Defense District (PADD) regions (inter-PADD), within each region (intra-PADD), and across the U.S.-Canada border. EIA developed the new series using information provided by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) along with data from Canada’s National Energy Board, and EIA survey data.

Total CBR movements in the United States and between the United States and Canada were more than 1 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2014, up from 55,000 bbl/d in 2010. The regional distribution of these movements has also changed over this period.

[Click here for the EIA crude oil movements by rail, including a series of annual maps that provide general flows of CBR movements annually from 2010 through 2014.]

DIGGING INTO THE DATA FURTHER…

Before digging into the data, a short explanation is required to understand PADDs (Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts). PADDs are geographical regions: PADD 1 is the East Coast, PADD 2 the Midwest, PADD 3 Gulf Coast, PADD 4 Rocky Mountain, PADD 5 West Coast, AK and HI.

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From this knowledge, we can now look at each region for the number of barrels shipped and received. For example, let’s look at trends in crude oil shipments by rail for the entire U.S. by using this data table [found here.]

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By putting a check box for the row labeled “Total”, we can now view this chart showing oil shipments by rail in the U.S. since 2010.

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Besides many excellent charts, we can also look at recent data. This chart [found here] shows the thousands of barrels/day for the month of January 2015:

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As you can see, the majority of the oil shipped from the Bakken fields (PADD 2) is shipped east to (PADD 1). 437,000 bbl/day. This is close to what we have calculated is heading through the La Crosse, WI area from both the CP and BNSF rail lines. Although it would be preferred to have data at a more refined level (by rail carrier, through cities, by day & month) at least we are able to now see trends on a regional level. Lot’s of digging to do!

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Santa Maria Refinery’s controversial oil train project is topic of public forum Thurs. 4/2/15

Repost from KCBX FM Central Coast Public Radio

Santa Maria Refinery’s controversial oil train project is topic of public forum

By KCBX Newsroom, Tue March 31, 2015 5:16 pm
A train transporting oil through San Jose, one of the many municipalities that has expressed concern over the Phillips 66 rail project.

A train transporting oil through San Jose, one of the many municipalities that has expressed concern over the Phillips 66 rail project. Credit Flickr member Drew Jacksich

A controversial plan to ship oil by train to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery will be the topic of a public discussion Thursday night in Grover Beach.

Key players from both sides of the issue are scheduled to attend. Representatives from Phillips 66, as well as the Oil Refinery Watch Group [Mesa Refinery Watch Group] are expected to present their arguments for and against the rail project.

The forum is being organized by Karen Bright with the South County Democratic Club of San Luis Obispo County. Bright says this issue is important to many people in the area.

“We had put it out to our members—various things and items, subject matter that they’d like to have presentations on throughout the year—and this was the one that rose to the top,” said Bright. “I think because it’s so current and there are so many differences of opinion, so we just wanted to get the facts from both sides.”

A growing number of cities, counties, and other governmental bodies located along the Union Pacific rail line have expressed concern over the project. They’ve sent official letters to the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission.

Phillips 66 says a quarter million barrels of crude oil would arrive at the facility each week, should the rail connector be approved.

The company says that crude would be transported on modern rail cars that exceed current regulatory safety standards.

MEETING DETAILS:

  • Wednesday, April 1, 2015
  • The Grover Beach Trouville Community Center, 1230 Trouville Avenue, Grover Beach, CA
  • Meeting starts at 7:00 p.m.
  • Contact: South County Democratic Club of San Luis Obispo County
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Information and events on Crude By Rail and Valero's Benicia Refinery