Marathon Petroleum questions volatility of Bakken crude, but much remains unknown

Repost from

New lab test shows Bakken crude may be less dangerous than earlier data suggest

By Cezary Podkul NEW YORK  Feb 26, 2014

Feb 26 (Reuters) – A study of a fresh sample of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota published this week showed sharply lower levels of volatile vapors compared to previous tests, potentially raising new questions about the danger of shipping it by rail.

The latest data from Marathon Petroleum’s Capline Pipeline unit, which publishes so-called “assays” on the quality of over 100 types of crude on its website, showed a sharp fall in the oil’s vapor pressure, a common measure of a fuel’s ability to evaporate and give off combustible gases.

While the data offers only a single snapshot of the properties for a batch of so-called “North Dakota Sweet”, a term for Bakken crude, it may raise more questions about the combustibility of the oil, which has been cited in several fiery derailments in recent months.

The data emerges just as U.S. regulators impose new rules requiring more testing of Bakken crude for fear it is prone to explosion during accidents. Industry officials are appearing before a House committee in Washington on Wednesday to discuss the issue.

Capline’s latest Bakken assay, dated 14 January, was posted on its website this week, shortly after a Wall Street Journal story on Monday used older Capline data to show Bakken crude carries more combustible gases than other varieties. While Bakken’s ultra-light properties are generally well known, hard data is rarely made public.

Regulators are seeking more information on Bakken crude from oil shippers and are also conducting their own data collection and sampling. It is not clear when or if those results will be released.

Capline’s newest test showed a vapor pressure reading of 5.94 pounds per square inch (psi). The reading compares with a psi of 8.75 for a test done in February 2013 and is nearly 4 pounds per square inch lower than the highest reading, 9.7 psi, recorded by Capline in December 2010. A higher psi reading generally indicates a liquid fuel is more prone to give off combustible gases.

It was not clear why the rate had declined so sharply, or whether that decline is broadly reflective of the region as a whole. One expert who reviewed the data said the wide fluctuation appeared unusual, but not conclusive of any trend.

“I would expect it to go up and down, it’s going to vary, but that’s a big drop,” Connie M. Hendrickson, chemist with Arkon Consultants in Dallas, Texas, told Reuters. “Without extra sampling and extra testing, we just don’t know.”

A spokesman for Marathon declined to comment on the decrease, other than to say the firm has “a process in place to test crude oil for quality oversight purposes”. The samples are generally taken at the same spot on the pipeline, the spokesman said.

It is not clear how much Bakken runs through the Capline, a 1.3 million barrels-per-day (bpd) pipeline running north from St. James, Louisiana, to Illinois. The Marathon spokesman declined to provide operating rates for the pipeline.

To be sure, Capline’s latest data still show Bakken crude ranks higher in volatility than most other crudes, based on vapor pressure tests conducted by the company. At the 5.94 psi, for example, Capline’s latest Bakken sample still ranks more than double that of Light Louisiana Sweet crude, which tested at 2.38 psi in May 2013.

Still, the wider range of readings and the infrequency of the testing suggests there remains much uncertainty about the quality of Bakken crude.

Other data sets have suggested not only that the crude is light by its nature – Bakken reserves are rich in so-called “light ends” like butane, propane and other byproducts of petroleum – but that it is also growing lighter.

Refiner Tesoro Corp. said in a 2013 presentation that its purchases of crude sourced from North Dakota’s Bakken region have increased in volatility, topping readings of 12 psi in 2013.

Some lawmakers have asked for more data to aid regulatory efforts on this issue.

“It is not in anyone’s best interest to knee-jerk a response without data,” North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp said in an interview this week.

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    Southern California refinery plan to affect SF Bay Area

    Repost from The Los Angeles Times

    Phillips 66 plans to build San Luis Obispo County rail terminal

    The terminal would send trains with up to 80 tank cars of crude oil through Southern California and the Bay Area to Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery.
    November 26, 2013 | By Ralph Vartabedian

    Phillips 66, which operates refineries across California, is moving forward with a plan to build a rail terminal in San Luis Obispo County that would send trains with up to 80 tank cars of crude oil through Southern California and the Bay Area.

    In a draft environmental impact statement filed this week, Phillips said it wants to build five sets of parallel tracks that would accommodate trains as often as 250 times per year at its Santa Maria Refinery.

    The project is the latest effort by the refinery industry to increase crude imports to California from oil fields in North Dakota, Colorado and Texas. There are no pipelines that can transport large amounts of oil to the West Coast.

    Earlier, Valero Energy Corp. disclosed a plan to build a rail facility at its refinery in the Bay Area, and industry analysts expect that an oil rail facility will be built somewhere in the Central Valley.

    While the amount of crude moving by rail throughout North America has been on a sharp rise over the last five years, the trend had not attracted a great of public attention until this summer, when a runaway train with 70 tank cars full of crude derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 42 residents and destroying much of the downtown.

    Since then, two other derailments of crude trains have occurred, and the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order to improve safety. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an agency of the U.S. Transportation Department, has taken initial steps to strengthen tank car safety.

    More than 200,000 barrels a month of crude have been imported into California by rail as recently as this summer, a fourfold increase from the prior year.

    Until now, California has gotten most of its crude from Alaska or foreign nations via tanker ships, or from the state’s own oil patches via a network of pipelines.

    Dean Acosta, a Phillips 66 spokesman, said the project will “enable rail delivery of crude oil from other North American sources because the refinery’s traditional supply of crude oil from California fields is declining.”

    The new Philips terminal, located 21/4 miles from the Pacific Ocean near the town of Nipomo, would be connected to Union Pacific’s coastal line that runs from downtown Los Angeles north to the Bay Area.

    A Union Pacific spokesman said its transportation of crude would meet federal laws and industry standards.

    The environmental impact statement indicates that the mostly likely source of crude for the rail terminal would be North Dakota’s Bakken Field, suggesting that more trains would run southbound from the Bay Area than northbound from Los Angeles.

    Phillips is also seeking approval to increase the output of the Santa Maria Refinery by 10%, which is under review by the California Coastal Commission. The plant sends partially refined oil to one of Phillips’ main refineries in the Bay Area by a 200-mile pipeline.

    The impact statement acknowledges some safety and environmental issues with the new rail facility.

    “The main hazards associated with the Rail Spur Project are potential accidents at the [Santa Maria Refinery] and along the [Union Pacific] mainline that could result in oil spills, fires and explosions,” the report said.

    But it added that an analysis of the risks of a fire or explosion along the railroad’s main line found the risk to be “less than significant.”

    “Our new crude-by-rail fleet is constructed to meet or exceed the latest Assn. of American Railroads safety standards,” Phillips spokesman Acosta said.

    The report also found the crude trains would increase air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides. “Operational pollutant emissions within San Luis Obispo County could be potentially significant and unavoidable,” it said.

    Murray Wilson, a San Luis Obispo planning department official, said the project has received both local support and opposition. The extent of public opinion should become clearer during the 60-day public comment period that opened this week.

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      Berkeley City Council – No Crude By Rail – Sierra Club support

      Repost from KPIX5 CBS San Francisco

      Berkeley City Council Votes To Oppose Crude By Rail Plan

      March 26, 2014 8:19 AM
      A KPIX 5 crew captured this video of Bakken crude oil getting unloaded from a train at a rail yard in Richmond. (CBS)

      A KPIX 5 crew captured this video of Bakken crude oil getting unloaded from a train at a rail yard in Richmond. (CBS)

      BERKELEY (CBS SF) — The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a resolution that opposes plans by Phillips 66 to transport crude oil through Berkeley and other East Bay cities to a new refinery rail spur in San Luis Obispo County.

      City Councilwoman Linda Maio, who wrote the resolution along with City Councilman Darryl Moore, admitted in a letter to the community that railroads are exempt from local and state laws because they are interstate operators.

      But Maio said, “That must not stop us from fiercely opposing their plans and demanding intervention.”

      She said that among the actions that Berkeley can take are filing briefs in environmental impact lawsuits opposing Phillips’ plans, coordinating with other cities located along the planned transportation route, working with state legislators and lobbying California’s congresspersons and senators.

      In a letter to other councilmembers, Maio and Moore said California refineries are in the process of securing permits to build rail terminals to import Canadian tar sands and Bakken crude oils from North and South Dakota.

      Maio and Moore said under current plans, crude oil trains would enter Northern California via the Donner Pass and eventually travel along the San Francisco Bay through Martinez, Richmond, Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland using Union Pacific tracks.

      From Oakland, the trains would use the Coast Line via Hayward, Santa Clara, San Jose and Salinas and continue along the Pacific Coast to the Santa Maria facility in San Luis Obispo County, they said.

      Maio and Moore said the Phillips 66 project would transport 2 million gallons per day of crude oil through the Bay Area and that “Roughly 80 tanker cars per day of crude oil assembled in a single train would pass through our cities.”

      “A crude oil accident could occur anywhere along the transportation corridor including the densely-populated Bay Area,” they said.

      The two councilmembers said transporting crude oil can be dangerous, citing an incident last July in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, where 72 tanker cars loaded with 2 million gallons of crude oil derailed, dumping 1.5 million of crude oil.

      The resulting fire and explosions burned down dozens of building, killed 47 people and caused more than $1 billion in damage, they said.

      The Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay chapter said in a statement today that it “strongly supports” the resolution by Maio and Moore.

      Sierra Club staff attorney Devorah Ancel said, “The tar sands and Bakken crude are more carbon-intensive, more toxic, and more dangerous to transport than conventional crude oil.”

      “Transport of tar sands and Bakken crude is growing at a ferocious pace – in 2013 alone more oil spilled from crude oil trains than has spilled from trains in the past four decades,” Ancel said.

      She said, “These trains are not safe, they are not adequately regulated and they have no business traveling through Berkeley, the East Bay, or near any community or waterway that would be threatened by a catastrophic spill or explosion.”

      Phillips 66 said in a statement that it “is committed to the safety of everyone who works in our facilities, lives in the communities where we operate or uses our products.”

      “Preventing incidents and ensuring the safe and reliable transport of petroleum is our top priority while participating in the North American energy renaissance,” the statement read.

      The company said it has “one of the most modern crude rail fleets in the industry, consisting of railcars that exceed current regulatory safety requirements and it began modernizing its crude fleet in 2012 “as a proactive precautionary measure to safely capture the opportunities of the rapidly changing energy landscape.”

      Phillips said, “Our rail cars are inspected to ensure safe, compliant shipments, and we collect data to ensure compliance with the periodic maintenance plan for our rail car fleet” and its rail car program includes federally-mandated inspection, testing and repair of hazmat tank cars.”

      The company said its Santa Maria facility is set up to process the heavier California-produced crude oil and the routes that train cars travel to reach the facility are selected by rail carriers.

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