Tag Archives: Bakken crude

All about Bakken Crude, by Guy Cooper, Martinez Gazette

Repost from The Martinez Gazette

Martinez Environmental Group: The oil, pick your poison

By Guy Cooper | April 20, 2014

Two types of North American crude will roll through our towns. There’s the Bakken crude fractured from the shale beds of North Dakota and the oil/tar sand derivatives rent from the wilds of Alberta, Canada. The former has the potential to vaporize you and your neighborhood.  The latter can slowly render your land and water and body uninhabitable.

It was Bakken crude that blew up the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, last July, exploded and poisoned the wetlands of Aliceville, Ala., in November, and just missed annihilating the town of Casselton, N.D., in December. That’s just a sample.

Lac-Mégantic was the eye opener. An improperly equipped and under-staffed 70-car tanker train heading east from the oil fields of Dakota was left parked on the main line above the town with an incorrectly set brake. In the early morning hours, the train broke free and careened down the hill, derailing in the center of town. OK. A train derailment due to human error.  An unfortunate accident. One would expect a nasty oil spill and big clean up to follow.

That’s not what happened. The train exploded in concussive fireballs that flattened the downtown and instantly killed 47 people. Aerial images show an area the size of downtown Martinez reduced to rubble. Flaming oil flows poured like lava from the burning train into the nearby river and lake, cooling into an intractable underwater toxic waste deposit. It took four days just to extinguish the fires. Who knows how long it will take to clean up the mess. And, of course, 47 lives lost.  The town will never be the same.

That tragic episode got people’s attention. Crude oil is not supposed to explode. It was first thought an anomaly. Maybe the train crashed into tanks of propane. That was disproved. Then there were the pools of carcinogenic benzene fire crews found themselves slogging through. Not normal.

Well, it won’t happen again. Then it did, at Aliceville and Casselton.

What was this stuff that reacted in such an uncharacteristic way? People living beside the tracks wanted to know. Emergency responders wanted to know. Local officials and the Canadian and U.S. government agencies responsible for public safety, train regulation and hazardous materials handling sought answers. Investigations and regulatory hearings commenced. About the only people not publicly showing a lot of interest, besides issues of liability, were the companies responsible for the oil production, movement and refining. Accidents happen. Normal precautions were taken. Regulations were followed. We know what we’re doing. Let’s get the PR, lawyers and lobbyist guys on this.

In response, Grant Robertson of the Toronto Globe and Mail visited the Bakken oil fields. An oil worker invited him in and produced a mason jar of fresh-out-of-the-ground Bakken crude.  “Smells like gasoline, doesn’t it? Some guys around here pour it directly in their trucks.”  The local joke is if most crude looks like a pint of Guinness, Bakken looks like Miller Lite.

The Chemical Engineer, an industry source, reported the results of chemical analysis by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) that largely corroborated Mr. Robertson’s hands-on experience. Flashpoint refers to the temperature at which the crude gives off enough vapor to ignite. The lower the flashpoint, the more explosive the crude. The TSB results indicated a flashpoint from Lac-Mégantic samples so low that the measuring machine could only show that it was less than -35 C. The report concluded that “It is apparent that the occurrence crude oil’s flashpoint is similar to that of unleaded gasoline.”

High vapor pressure was also found, another explosive indicator. As I understand it, vapor pressure suggests the combustible gas content of an oil. The refiner Tesoro reported in early 2013 a reading of 12 psi for Bakken. Marathon Oil reported readings of 9.7 and 8.75 between 2010 and 2013, then in 2014 (after the explosions of 2013, just saying …), reported a 5.94 result.  Analysts consider that low reading an aberration, but even that number is about twice the average of most crude oils.

This is the problem. The Lac-Mégantic train cargo was assigned a packing group III classification by the largely self-regulated oil producers based on an either missed or deliberately misleading evaluation of the real volatility. Fact is, the higher the classification number, the lower the cost of transport. Class III is considered low risk. A more realistic classification I or II would have required more train staffing, beefier cars, enhanced disaster planning and other safeguards.  In other words, there would have been someone else to double check on the brake and the train could not have been left unattended on the main line while the sole engineer went five miles away to a hotel for the night. A spot check of trucks transporting Bakken from the well-heads to rail-loading facilities found a similarly pervasive cargo mis-classification. The fact is, that left to their own devices, without adequate independent regulatory oversight, oil producers, transporters and refiners are invariably going to pick the lowest-cost strategy to bring their product to market. This is the current state of the surrounding industry we are entrusting with our safety. Not a good idea.

    Ohio: Leaders don’t keep track of oil trains

    Repost from The Bucyrus Telegraph, Bucyrus, Ohio

    Leaders don’t keep track of oil trains

    Explosive shipments go right through city centers

    Apr. 3, 2014
    by James Pilcher, The Cincinnati Enquirer

    Domestic oil production, including that in Ohio, keeps growing. And with oil being produced in new areas that don’t have pipelines, more crude is heading to refineries in rail cars. Yet neither federal nor state regulators track the shipments that are increasingly crisscrossing the country — potentially cutting through neighborhoods and business districts nationwide.

    Much of the oil apparently is more volatile than traditional crude, with some experts saying it is as explosive “as gasoline.” A number of oil tanker accidents and explosions made headlines last year, including last July’s derailment and explosion in  Quebec that killed 47 people and all but leveled a small town. The train was pulling at least a dozen tank cars carrying crude pulled from Bakken shale deposits.

    Similar types of oil are being pulled from shale fields all over the U.S., including eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and North Dakota.

    “Regulators across North America simply have not kept up with the boom in moving oil by train,” said Keith Stewart, a Canadian-based researcher for the environmental group Greenpeace. “You would be shocked how little governments know how much and where and when this oil is moving by rail.”

    Federal regulators don’t know what is  on the tracks at any given time. Nor do first responders and community officials, apart from getting a list of the top 25 hazardous materials that move through their communities. But because of security concerns, local officials can’t make the top 25 lists public. Railroads must keep a list internally, but those records also are not public.

    The lack of disclosure could pose a problem for a city such as Cincinnati, which has one of the Midwest’s largest railyards in CSX-owned Queensgate, which sits near downtown.

    “All kinds of hazardous materials go through (Queensgate) and no, we’re not notified of what is going through when,“ said Cincinnati Fire Department District Chief Tom Lakamp, who oversees special operations and hazardous materials response teams for the city.

    The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration oversees the shipments of all hazardous materials, including crude oil, superseding state regulators for rail shipments. The agency did not make anyone available for interviews, but said in a statement that it was starting to look at changing its rules and was taking a closer look at oil shipments.

    All that’s called ‘crude’ is not necessarily the same

    The United States is poised to become the world’s largest combined producer of natural gas and crude oil in the coming year, according to federal data, which  indicate the country produced 7.5 million barrels of oil a day last year. Oil industry officials saying national production has been above 8 million barrels per day since November.

    Ohio is a part of that growth, because of the wells in the eastern part of the state pulling up oil and natural gas from Utica shale reserves. The state produced 16,000 barrels of oil a day last year, up more than 23 percent from 2012.

    But even as oil production has grown, pipeline infrastructure hasn’t kept pace. That’s forced oil producers and refiners to turn to rail shipments, especially in remote areas such as North Dakota, but also in Ohio. The railroad industry reports that crude oil shipments nearly doubled in 2013 as compared with 2012, with the American Association of Railroads estimating that more than 400,000 tank loads of crude arrived by rail last year.

    A single tank car holds about 714 barrels of oil, and each barrel contains 42 gallons, meaning every tank car contains 30,000 gallons of oil. But an Ohio oil industry official says the majority of what’s called oil produced and shipped in the state is “ very volatile” and “basically liquified natural gas,” even as he points out that Ohio oil has been pumped and shipped safely for decades.

    “It is still classified as crude oil, even thought it is a lot closer to gasoline,” said Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Natural Gas Association. “The bottom line is that it should be treated differently than other crude oil.”

    Stewart says most of Ohio’s oil is shipped out of state — although refineries in the state are starting to take on this volatile oil.

    Finally, the oil is being shipped in outdated tanker cars. The National Transportation Safety Board started recommending in 1991 that oil companies stop using the older model of tanker because they have proven not to prevent spillage and explosions in case of derailments. It renewed its call this January.

    “You’ve got one of the most profitable industries in the world looking to save a few dollars at the cost of safety,” said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based rail/hazmat safety consultant who has worked with major cities on safety planning.

    Issue creates tensions; changes on the way?

    Tension abounds between the oil and rail industries over the shipments, even as railroads court oil producers as customers.

    Many carriers — including CSX and the Genesee & Wyoming railroad — actively market their capacity to oil producers. But on the other hand, national railroad officials openly acknowledge differences with the oil industry over safety standards.

    “The shippers own the cars and the materials and are responsible for safe packaging and labeling, but we’re the ones liable in case of an accident,” said Holly Arthur, spokeswoman for the American Association of Railroads.

    The rail industry last month agreed with the U.S. Transportation Department to voluntarily impose tighter procedures, including:

    •  Installing better brakes on trains with 20 or more oil cars.

    •  Limiting speeds to 40 mph on trains with 20 or more rail cars in highly populated areas.

    •  Increase track inspections on lines that carry trains with heavy oil traffic.

    Oil industry officials say they also are trying to improve safety, but have not yet agreed to any specifics. “Our mitigation efforts are looking at topics like tank car design and crude oil testing and classification,” said Jack Gerard, president and chief executive officer for the American Petroleum Institute.

    As for the regulators, PHMSA is studying new variations of the domestically produced oil and its potential volatility. It’s also double-checking that domestic oil is property categorized and shipped.