Tag Archives: Crude by Rail

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.

    Benicia Herald op ed: Do Benicians want tar-sands oil brought here?

    Repost from The Benicia Herald

    Do Benicians want tar-sands oil brought here?

    THE RAVAGES OF tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada. Sierra Club

    By Roger Straw

    MANY THANKS TO BENICIA HERALD REPORTER Donna Beth Weilenmann for her detailed report, “Valero rail project: City has no control over oil source” (June 12). It is unfortunate that City Manager Brad Kilger is quoted saying, “The city does not have the authority to control the refinery’s crude sources.”

    The source of Valero’s crude is important — here in Solano County, and globally. Since the city can’t control it, perhaps those of us who live here should persuade our friendly giant Valero to stay away from Canadian tar-sands oil of its own volition.

    The world is dying, not so slowly, from the burning of fossil fuels. The most polluting of these fuels is mined in Alberta, Canada, where investors are extracting a thick, tar-like substance called “bitumen” from deep layers of sand. This sludge is blasted out of the sand with heated water. Millions of gallons of water are used daily, which first must be heated by natural gas, so the process is not energy efficient and can never be truly competitive with regard to “return on investment” after all costs are factored.

    Moreover, additional costs are too often not accounted for — in particular the destruction of miles and miles of pristine northern boreal forests, and in their place the creation of a hellish network of open pit mines, wells, roads, pipes and hundreds of toxic “lakes” from the water used in the extraction process. The destruction has expanded to an area larger than Ohio or Pennsylvania.

    Next comes the problem of creating a “blend” of crude oil from the tar-like bitumen that is fluid enough to be transportable by pipeline (Keystone XL), or now by rail. The gazillion-dollar heated railroad cars, we are told by Mr. Kilger, who cites a study paid for by Valero, are “specifically designed not to rupture,” and the city, county, state and feds are all well-prepared to take care of any emergency.

    Sure. Tell that to the residents who live near Kalamazoo, Mich., where my daughter was born. We have friends and family nearby there, and their story of leaked tar-sands crude is horrific. After spending more than $765 million on a three-year cleanup there, the Kalamazoo River is still plagued by sunken heavy balls of tar-sands bitumen, threatening habitat, wildlife and human health. For background, see “April Flooding Could Affect Cleanup of 2010 Michigan Oil Spill,” by David Hasemyer:

    “Removing dilbit (diluted bitumen) from water is more difficult than removing conventional oil because the chemicals used to thin the bitumen gradually evaporate, while the bitumen sinks to the river bottom.”

    Imagine that gunk flowing into our Suisun Marsh after a train derailment — what would that look like? For an idea, read InsideClimate News’ Pulitzer Prize-winning authors’ “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of,” about “a project that began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.”

    We in Benicia — including our neighbors in positions of influence at Valero — need to do some very important homework and ask a lot of questions before this new crude-by-rail project is approved. Imagine a disaster here, or better yet, imagine no opportunity for one. The hearing at the Planning Commission is set for July 11. Comments should be sent by July 1 to City Manager Brad Kilger at City Hall, 250 East L St., Benicia, or by email to bkilger@ci.benicia.ca.us.

    Roger Straw is a Benicia resident.