Tag Archives: Senator Maria Cantwell

New vapor pressure rule in North Dakota fails to account for additional explosion risks

Repost from Reuters
[Editor:  Reference below is to an important new Energy Department study on the volatility of Bakken crude.  – RS]

North Dakota’s new oil train safety checks seen missing risks

By Patrick Rucker, Mar 31, 2015 4:14pm EDT

WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) – New regulations to cap vapor pressure of North Dakota crude fail to account for how it behaves in transit, according to industry experts, raising doubts about whether the state’s much-anticipated rules will make oil train shipments safer.

High vapor pressure has been identified as a possible factor in the fireball explosions witnessed after oil train derailments in Illinois and West Virginia in recent weeks.

For over a year, federal officials have warned that crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale oilfields contains a cocktail of explosive gas – known in the industry as ‘light ends.’

The new rules, which take effect on April 1, aim to contain dangers by spot-checking the vapor pressure of crude before loading and capping it at 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi) – about normal atmospheric conditions.

The plan relies on a widely-used test for measuring pressure at the wellhead, but safety experts say gas levels can climb inside the nearly-full tankers, so the checks are a poor indicator of explosion risks for rail shipments.

It is “well-understood, basic physics” that crude oil will exert more pressure in a full container than in the test conditions North Dakota will use, said Dennis Sutton, executive director of the Crude Oil Quality Association, which studies how to safely handle fossil fuels.

Ametek Inc, a leading manufacturer of testing equipment, has detected vapor pressure climbing from about 9 psi to over 30 psi – more than twice the new limit – while an oil tank is filled to near-capacity.

About 70 percent of the roughly 1.2 million barrels of oil produced in North Dakota every day moves by rail to distant refineries and passes through hundreds of cities and towns along the way.

The state controls matter to those communities because there is no federal standard to curb explosive gases in oil trains.

North Dakota officials point out that the pressure limit is more stringent than the industry-accepted definition of “stable” crude oil. They also say that they lack jurisdiction over tank cars leaving the state and that the pressure tests are just one of the measures to make oil trains safer.

“We’re trying to achieve a set of operating practices that generates a safe, reliable crude oil,” Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has said. Helms has also said that test readings for near-full containers were less reliable.

However, given different testing and transport conditions, industry officials say the pressure threshold may need to be lowered to reduce the risks.

Limiting vapor pressure to 13.7 psi in transit would require an operator to bring it to “something well below that” at the loading point, Sutton said.

The uncertainty about regulatory reach and safety has spurred calls for the White House to develop national standards to control explosive gas pressure.

“Let me be really clear,” Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state told reporters last week. “They should set a standard on volatility.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent safety agency, has already encouraged a federal standard for “setting vapor pressure thresholds” for oil trains citing Canadian findings linking such pressure and the size of explosions in train accidents.

Meanwhile, a leading voice for the oil industry is lobbying Congress to resist federal vapor pressure benchmarks.

Last week, the American Petroleum Institute urged lawmakers to oppose “a national volatility standard” and pointed to an Energy Department study that the severity of an oil train mishap may have more to do with the circumstances of the crash than the volatility of the cargo.

That same report said much more study was needed to understand volatility of crude oil from the Bakken. (For a link to the study: tinyurl.com/nvjqmxt)

The oil industry has said that wringing ‘light ends’ out of Bakken crude may keep a share of valuable fuel from reaching refineries.

Reuters reported early this month that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx took his concerns about Bakken oil volatility to the White House last summer and sought advice on what to do about the danger of explosive gases.

The administration decided that rather than assert federal authority it would allow the North Dakota rules to take root, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

(Reporting By Patrick Rucker; Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder in North Dakota; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Bernard Orr)
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    ‘Get them off rails now,’ Four US Senators say of some oil tank cars

    Repost from McClatchy News
    [Editor:  Thank you to co-sponsors of Sen. Cantwell’s bill: Senators Patty Murray of Washington, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Dianne Feinstein of California, all Democrats.  See also: the Cantwell press release (including a video), and the text of the legislation.  – RS]

    ‘Get them off rails now,’ Sen. Cantwell says of some oil tank cars

    By Curtis Tate, March 25, 2015
    US NEWS RAILSAFETY 3 MCT
    A DOT-111A tank car rolls past the Amtrak platform at Newark, Del., on July 28, 2013. CURTIS TATE — MCT

    WASHINGTON — Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced legislation on Wednesday that would immediately ban the least sturdy tank cars from carrying crude oil after a series of recent fiery train derailments.

    The bill also would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to regulate the volatility of crude oil transported by rail, particularly oil extracted from shale formations in North Dakota’s Bakken region.

    Cantwell’s bill follows four recent derailments in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario that have drawn new scrutiny to the large volumes of oil moving by rail across North America.

    The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing new regulations intended to address the safety concerns, but Cantwell told reporters Wednesday that the changes couldn’t wait.

    “We know that we need to move on this legislation now,” she said. “Derailments keep happening, and we need to take responsibility to ensure that our communities are safer.”

    Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Dianne Feinstein of California, all Democrats, are co-sponsoring Cantwell’s bill.

    In addition to addressing tank cars and volatility, the legislation also would increase penalties for rail and energy companies that don’t meet federal safety requirements.

    The bill would authorize funding to train emergency responders and require railroads to provide more information about oil shipments to state and local emergency officials. It also would require railroads to have comprehensive oil spill response plans.

    The measure aims to remove from crude oil service the kinds of tank cars that have proved vulnerable to punctures and fire exposure in a series of derailments over the past two years.

    Those include the older DOT-111 cars involved in a July 2013 derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people, as well as newer, industry-designed CPC-1232 cars involved in the most recent four derailments.

    All lack thermal insulation and outer jackets to better protect the cars in derailments, and Cantwell’s bill would require tank cars carrying oil have those features.

    “There are a bunch of tank cars that are unacceptable now,” she said. “So we’re saying get them off the rails, now.”

    Cantwell noted that the rail industry asked the Transportation Department for an improved tank car design four years ago and that her bill would help give the industry some certainty.

    “I’m willing to tell them right now: Here’s the standard that I think should be set,” she said.

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      Wall Street Journal: on the DOT’s nonbinding safety advisory

      Repost from The Wall Street Journal
      [Editor: Stakeholders, senators, and even the tank car builders say the feds haven’t gone far enough.  Significant quotes: “‘Making it voluntary is not going far enough,’ Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) told Transportation Secretary” … “The trade association representing railcar builders and car-leasing companies said the advisory doesn’t go far enough toward new standards for tank-car construction and retrofitting the existing car fleet.”  – RS]

      U.S. Urges Companies to Use Sturdier Tank Cars For Oil-Trains

      The Advisory Effectively Applies to About 66,500 Shipping Containers
      By Russell Gold  |  May 7, 2014

      U.S. safety regulators urged companies shipping crude oil from North Dakota to stop using tank cars that have been implicated in fiery accidents.

      The Transportation Department’s nonbinding safety advisory, which carries less weight than an emergency order, said shippers should use the sturdiest cars in their fleets to transport crude from the Bakken shale.

      The advisory effectively applies to about 66,500 tank cars—68% of the total commonly used to transport oil and other flammable liquids. Shippers instead should use the roughly 31,000 cars that have been retrofitted to improve safety or were built to higher standards.

      The call to get the older tanker cars off the rails drew immediate criticism as too weak.

      “Making it voluntary is not going far enough,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) told Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Mr. Foxx assured her that the federal government was moving as quickly as possible to issue new rules.

      The American Petroleum Institute said the industry had been working to upgrade tank cars for three years, and that during the next year “about 60% of railcars will be state-of-the- art, which is part of a long-term comprehensive effort to improve accident prevention, mitigation and emergency response.”

      The trade association representing railcar builders and car-leasing companies said the advisory doesn’t go far enough toward new standards for tank-car construction and retrofitting the existing car fleet.

      “With regulatory certainly, the car industry can get working” on retrofits right away, said Thomas Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute in Washington, D.C.

      Calling Bakken crude shipments “an imminent hazard,” the agency also issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring railroads operating trains carrying more than one million gallons of Bakken crude the oil—about 35 carloads—to notify state officials about the movement of these trains. Trains transporting oil typically include at least 100 cars.

      Railroads haven’t historically liked to disclose the routes or contents of their hazardous-material shipments even to the communities they travel through. But the Association of American Railroads, which represents the country’s big freight railroads, said its members will “do all they can to comply with the Transportation Department’s Emergency Order.”

      State and local officials have complained that they haven’t been told about crude shipments, which have been rising rapidly. About 715,000 barrels of Bakken crude are being shipped by rail each day, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, or almost 10% of all the oil pumped in the U.S.

      A spokesman for  Berkshire Hathaway Inc. ‘s BNSF Railway said it routinely provides information to interested state agencies and emergency responders about the hazardous materials on its routes. He said BNSF also “believes that promulgation of a federal tank-car standard will provide much needed certainty for shippers and improved safety and response time for all first responders.”

      The Canadian Transport Ministry last month gave railcar owners 30 days to stop using the roughly 5,000 least crash-resistant tank cars.

      Regulators have been grappling with the rising amounts of crude oil being shipped across the country. A fiery derailment in Quebec last summer killed 47 people; more recently, crashes and derailments in Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia have involved fire and explosions.

      Federal investigators suspect that crude from the Bakken shale is more combustible than oil from other regions.

      A Wall Street Journal analysis in February found that Bakken oil was very flammable and contained several times the level of combustible gases as oil from elsewhere.

      The Bakken oil field has grown quickly, producing more than a million barrels a day and outpacing the capacity of pipelines. Companies have increasingly relied on railroads to transport the oil to refineries on the coasts.

      In February, railroads said they would slow down oil trains to no more than 40 miles an hour in urban areas and try to route these trains around high-risk areas. But a crude train that derailed in Lynchburg, Va., last week was traveling at only 24 miles an hour. Its cargo didn’t explode, but leaking oil burned in the James River.

      —Betsy Morris and Bob Tita contributed to this article
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