Maclean’s: So it turns out Bakken oil is explosive after all

Repost from Maclean’s Magazine

So it turns out Bakken oil is explosive after all

Producers in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields have been told to make crude is safer before being shipped by rail
By Chris Sorensen, December 10, 2014

Oil TrainsAfter years of insisting oil sucked from North Dakota’s Bakken shale wasn’t inherently dangerous, producers have been ordered to purge the light, sweet crude of highly flammable substances before loading it on railcars and shipping it through towns and cities across the continent.

State regulators said this week that the region’s crude will first need to be treated, using heat or pressure, to remove more volatile liquids and gases. The idea, according to North Dakota’s Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms, wasn’t to render the oil incapable of being ignited, but merely more stable in preparation for transport.

It’s the latest regulatory response to a frightening series of fiery train crashes that stretches back to the summer of 2013. That’s when a runaway train laden with Bakken crude jumped the tracks in Lac-Mégantic, Que., and killed 47 people in a giant fireball. In the accident’s immediate aftermath, many experts struggled to understand how a train full of crude oil could ignite so quickly and violently. It had never happened before.

Subsequent studies have shown that Bakken crude, squeezed from shale rock under high pressure through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” can indeed have a high gas content and vapour pressure, as well as lower flash and boiling points. However, there remains disagreement about whether the levels are unusual for oil extracted from shale, and whether the classifications for shipping it should be changed.

Still, with more than one million barrels of oil being moved by rail from the region each day, regulators have decided to err on the side of caution and implement additional safety measures. For producers, that means buying new equipment that can boil off propane, butane and other volatile natural gases. Under the new rules, the Bakken crude will not be allowed to have a vapour pressure greater than 13.7 lb. per square inch, about the same as for standard automobile gasoline. Regulators estimate that about 80 per cent of Bakken oil already meets these requirements.

The industry isn’t pleased. It continues to argue that Bakken oil is no more dangerous than other forms of light, sweet crude, and is, therefore, being unfairly singled out. It has also warned that removing volatile liquids and gasses from Bakken crude would result in the creation of a highly concentrated, highly volatile product that would still have to be shipped by rail—not to mention additional greenhouse-gas emissions. It goes without saying that meeting the new rules will also cost producers money—at a time when oil prices are falling.

In the meantime, regulators on both sides of the border are taking steps to boost rail safety by focusing on lower speed limits, new brake requirements and plans to phase out older, puncture-prone oil tank cars. Earlier this year, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said Canada would be “leading the continent” on the phase-out of older DOT-111 tank cars, which have been linked to fiery crashes going back 25 years. There are about 65,000 of the cars in service in North America, about a third of which can be found in Canada.

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Collision and derailment in Missoula rail yard – ‘double shelf couplers’ helpful?

Repost from The Missoulian
[Editor: Significant quote: “the cars were rigged with double shelf couplers designed to prevent individual cars from detaching and potentially causing punctures.  ‘This safety feature of the tank cars worked properly, resulting in all 30 cars rolling on their side(s), as designed,’ Lewis said in a written statement.”
Here is more about double shelf couplers.  And note p. 23 of a 2010 Transport Canada study which found that “Double shelf couplers also have disadvantages: sometimes string of ‘empty’ tank cars derail.”  – RS]

Montana Rail Link: Trains collide, tank cars derail in Missoula

By Kim Briggeman, December 16, 2014
derailement in Missoula

The first of 30 derailed tank cars in the Missoula rail yard is put back on the tracks Tuesday morning by a Montana Rail Link crew. The stationary tank cars were rerailed after being hit by a loaded car at low speed. Michael Gallacher

An early Tuesday morning train collision in the Missoula rail yard resulted in the derailment of 30 empty tank cars but no injuries or spills.

Montana Rail Link officials said the accident occurred about 4 a.m. when a rail car loaded with company scrap metal made low-speed contact with a stationary empty tank car coupled to 29 others.

MRL spokesman Jim Lewis said the cars were rigged with double shelf couplers designed to prevent individual cars from detaching and potentially causing punctures.

“This safety feature of the tank cars worked properly, resulting in all 30 cars rolling on their side(s), as designed,” Lewis said in a written statement.

Lewis said there was minimal equipment damage. The loaded car did not derail and was moved from the site.

Crews with heavy equipment started putting the tank cars back on track before noon and worked until 8 p.m. They’ll resume Wednesday morning, Lewis said.

Mainline service was not interrupted, and the cause of the incident is under investigation.

MRL has released no further word on its investigation into a collision east of Missoula near the mouth of the Blackfoot River on Nov. 13. That crash resulted in the derailment of three locomotives and 10 empty grain cars.

Both engineers in one locomotive were hospitalized and released. The shells of the grain cars remain along the tracks by a trestle below the former Milltown Dam as salvage work continues.

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