Repost from The Times Union, Albany NY
Safety rules on oil trains burn critics
Most N.D. loads to Albany now under new volatility limitsBy Brian Nearing, December 10, 2014
New safety rules on Bakken crude oil shipments imposed by North Dakota will not affect about 80 percent of oil arriving daily on massive tanker trains at the Port of Albany. Some oil opponents in the Capital Region are criticizing the limit as toothless.
Amid opposition from oil companies, the North Dakota Industrial Commission set a limit late Tuesday that is supposed to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude — or potential explosiveness — before it can be shipped out of state on trains. Officials in New York and other states along the routes of oil trains had been pushing for a limit in after major accidents in Canada, and states including Alabama and Pennsylvania.
The new North Dakota standard is well above volatility found in Bakken crude by Canadian safety officials after 47 people were killed in a massive explosion and fire when a crude oil train derailed in Quebec in July 2013.
“Reducing the volatility of Bakken crude at the source protects public health, protects the environment and provides an additional safeguard for New Yorkers and communities across the country,” according to the prepared statement. Attempts to obtain further comment Wednesday from DEC were not successful.
“This does not really provide much of a margin of safety for the public. It still does not address the (Bakken) flammability issue,” said Chris Amato, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental legal group and DEC deputy commissioner for natural resources from 2007 to 2011.
In October, Amato’s group filed a petition with DEC claiming the state has the power to immediately ban the most common type of oil tanker rail cars — called DOT-111s — from entering the port loaded with flammable Bakken oil. DEC disagreed that it had the power to take such a step, which would have made Albany the first place in the country to bar the aging tankers, which in derailments have been prone to rupture, leading to fires and explosions.
Amato called the North Dakota volatility standard “better than nothing,” adding that DEC “has its head in the sand on all crude-by-rail issues.”
“The new rule has no effect, zero,” said Sandy Steubing, a spokeswoman for the group People of Albany United for Safe Energy, which wants crude oil shipments into Albany halted. “It is like setting a speed limit of 100 miles an hour and saying we will catch the cars going 120,” she said. “I don’t know if North Dakota just did this for show.”
“Reducing the volatility of crude oil at the source before shipping is welcome news and is something for which I have been advocating. But North Dakota hasn’t set a standard that challenges the oil industry enough,” said McCoy. And Steck, a fellow Democrat, said North Dakota also failed to require removal of hydrofracking chemicals from the Bakken, which he said makes the crude more flammable.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said “any step that makes our community safer is a step in the right direction.”
Starting April 1, Bakken crude shipped out of the shale oil fields of North Dakota can have a vapor pressure of no more than 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi), slightly below a federal hazardous materials stability standard of 14.7 psi.
Bakken crude above this new standard would have to be treated with heat or pressure at the wells to remove its most volatile components.
North Dakota Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms has said about 80 percent of Bakken crude being shipped already falls below this standard. But he also told the Associated Press that the change would “significantly change the characteristics of crude oil that’s going into market.”
A vapor pressure rating is a measurement of how rapidly a liquid evaporates into a gas and spreads into the air, making it more volatile and prone to explosion. The Bakken crude that caused the massive fireball in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people had a psi of between 9 and 9.3, which is well below the new North Dakota safety standard.
In a report after the tragedy, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board found the Bakken crude involved was as volatile as gasoline. The volatility, combined with “large quantities of spilled crude oil, the rapid rate of release, and the oil’s … low viscosity were likely the major contributors to the large post-derailment fireball and pool fire,” the board found.
By comparison, crude oil pumped from beneath the Gulf of Mexico has a psi of about 3, making it much less likely to explode in an accident, according to figures reported this spring in the Wall Street Journal. In Texas, crude oil produced in the Eagle Ford shale formation has a psi of about 8.
According to the North Dakota Petroleum Council, the average Bakken crude has a psi of between 11.5 and 11.8, again below the new state safety standard.
The North Dakota standard is “far from a solution that the communities that are dealing with oil trains on a daily basis are looking for,” said Connor Bambrick, an analyst with Environmental Advocates of New York.