Tag Archives: Texas refineries

North Dakota man relentless in push for safer oil by rail shipping

Repost from the Billings Gazette
[Editor: This is not a fluffy human interest story, but an important offering on the oil industry and regulators in North Dakota. Significant quote: “‘If you want to fix a problem, you go to the source of the problem,’ he said.  ‘You don’t prepare for something that doesn’t have to happen.’”  Another good quote: “Pressure to make North Dakota crude oil safe for interstate shipment is mounting on several fronts.”– RS]

North Dakota man relentless in push for safer oil by rail shipping

November 02, 2014, by Patrick Springer, Forum News Service
Ron Schalow of Fargo
Ron Schalow of Fargo has been an outspoken advocate of stabilizing Bakken oil to remove volatile gases before it is shipped by rail. | David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO, N.D. — Ron Schalow isn’t bashful about expressing his caustic opinions. He once wrote a book scolding President George W. Bush for failing to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Part of the title can’t be printed here, but the subtitle read, “The 9/11 Leadership Myth.”

More recently, the Fargo man, a frequent writer of letters to the editor, has focused his attention on explosive Bakken crude oil and rail safety – an issue that has drawn national attention after a series of fiery train derailments, including an accident that killed 47 people in Canada and one late last year near Casselton.

Schalow launched a petition drive originally called the “Bomb Train Buck Stops in North Dakota,” which he renamed the “Coalition for Bakken Crude Oil Stabilization,” a reference to the process for removing volatile gases.

Improbable activist

Schalow’s background makes him an improbable activist. His early career was spent managing restaurants and bars, with a stint as a minor league baseball manager.

More recently, he worked for software companies including Microsoft in Fargo, but said he grew weary of corporate culture and office politics and turned to freelance work.

He has assembled a loose network of people concerned about the crude oil stabilization issue, including local officials in Minnesota and other states, but laments he has found little support for his crusade in North Dakota.

Still, North Dakota leaders have been under pressure from the federal government and other states, including Minnesota, to treat crude oil before shipping it around the country by rail to refineries.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is preparing new standards, likely to take effect Jan. 1, to “condition” crude oil before transport to address safety concerns. Separately, federal officials are drafting more stringent safety standards for tanker cars.

“I think we have to take some responsibility over what’s going over the tracks into Minnesota and the rest of the country,” Schalow said. “It has a lot to do with this is a product that’s coming out of my state.”

By his own admission, 59-year-old Schalow is not a consensus builder. A freelance writer for marketing clients, he isn’t a joiner by nature. Bespectacled, with a goatee, he is soft-spoken but adamant in expressing his views.

He has peppered North Dakota officials, including petroleum regulators and the three-member Industrial Commission, with emails calling for action and asking who is in charge of what he sees as a vital issue of public safety.

“I’ve badgered them relentlessly,” he said.

He is dismayed by what he regards as a sluggish state response, even after an official “tabletop exercise” last June that estimated 60 or more casualties if an oil train derailed and exploded in Fargo or Bismarck.

The exercise simulated a disaster similar to the blast that killed 47 and destroyed much of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013.

For Schalow, the key to ensuring the oil is safe is to remove the volatile gases before shipping. Anything else, in his view, is passing along a potentially deadly problem for others to face.

“If you want to fix a problem, you go to the source of the problem,” he said. “You don’t prepare for something that doesn’t have to happen.”

Derailments costly

Dealing with an explosive derailment can be costly. New York officials estimated, for example, it would take $40,000 in foam to extinguish one tanker car.

In the rail accident near Casselton last December, 20 tanker cars derailed, 18 of which were breached, unleashing a series of explosions and an enormous fireball. Intense heat kept the firefighters far from the flames, which they had to allow to burn out.

No one was seriously injured or killed in the crash.

“They can’t be prepared for combat explosions,” Schalow said, referring to the explosive fires that Bakken crude derailments have produced. “What would they do?”

North Dakota officials in the governor’s office and Department of Mineral Resources declined to talk about Schalow’s advocacy, but said the state is moving ahead to improve the safety of crude oil transportation.

“Gov. (Jack) Dalrymple takes rail transportation safety very seriously and he believes it’s important to have the public weigh in on this important issue,” said Jeff Zent, a spokesman and policy aide for the governor, the highest-ranking member of the Industrial Commission.

“That’s why the Industrial Commission will announce further regulations aimed at improving the safety of oil rail transportation,” he added.

“Our goal has always been to make crude oil as safe as possible for transport, within our jurisdiction,” said Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, which regulates oil and gas production.

The department is also working with “the appropriate federal agencies to better communicate our role to make crude oil as safe as possible for transport,” Ritter said.

In contrast to North Dakota, most crude oil in Texas is stabilized before shipment. Pipeline companies routinely require stabilization before accepting shale oil.

“How hard is it to stand up and say I’m against trains blowing up in my town?” Schalow asked, referring to public officials’ initial reluctance to impose tougher standards.

A recent Forum Communications poll found that 60 percent of respondents were concerned about the safety of shipping crude oil by rail, but there has been no real clamor from residents, Schalow said.

“It’d be nice if someone stood up and defended me once or twice,” he said. As for holding a meeting of supporters, well, “Who would I call and who would dare show up? There’s no political will in this state except for that anonymous 60 percent.”

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton has urged North Dakota to stabilize oil before loading crude onto trains. An estimated 50 North Dakota oil trains roll through Minnesota each week, many with 100 tanker cars.

Pressure to make North Dakota crude oil safe for interstate shipment is mounting on several fronts.

Other states, including New York and California, where refineries take Bakken crude, are considering safety requirements.

“There’s a lot more angst across the country than there is here,” Schalow said, adding that most of his contacts are from other states, including New York, California and Washington state.

“I think he’s a pretty straight shooter,” said Tim Meehl, mayor of Perham, Minn., who is concerned about oil trains traveling through his town. “I think everything he says has a lot of merit to it.”

Meehl has not met Schalow, but saw him at a meeting in Moorhead earlier this fall attended by Dayton and local officials, and has exchanged emails with Schalow.

“They don’t want to step on toes out there,” Meehl, a native of Oakes, N.D., said of North Dakota officials’ deference to oil interests. “We need the oil. We just need to do it in a safer way.”

In North Dakota, residents and politicians seem reluctant to do anything that risks discouraging energy production, a powerful economic engine, Schalow said.

‘Quiet acceptance’

“You can’t say anything that might impact business, no matter what,” he said, describing what he regards as North Dakota’s curious culture of quiet acceptance.

Regulators aren’t alone in singling out oil tanker cars. BNSF announced last week that it will charge a $1,000 fee for each older crude oil tank car, more prone to puncture than newer models. By one estimate, that would add about $1.50 a barrel to the transportation cost.

In Texas, energy companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make crude safer to handle. The cost of stabilizing crude oil could trim potential revenue by perhaps 2 percent, according to the estimate of an unidentified industry executive interviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Schalow has been an outspoken critic of the Bush presidency and North Dakota leadership, but said he really has no allies in either political party.

A conservative blogger once described him as a “truther” for his criticisms of Bush, whom he castigated for failing to take pre-emptive action against al-Qaida despite warning signs of their terrorist ambitions. Schalow dismisses the “truther” label as unfair, saying he offered no conspiracy theories in his book.

He said the paperback sold 4,000 or 5,000 copies after it came out in 2006. No book is forthcoming on the issue of Bakken crude safety, but Schalow is unlikely to stop writing his letters, emails and Facebook posts.

“I don’t think it’s a political issue,” he said. “I think it’s a public safety issue.”

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National Geographic series on Energy: New Oil Train Safety Rules Divide Rail Industry

Repost from The National Geographic

New Oil Train Safety Rules Divide Rail Industry

Many railroad companies want more time to retrofit cars in the U.S. and Canada, but some are forging ahead.
By Joe Eaton for National Geographic, October 31, 2014
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013.
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil and derailed in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013. Regulators in Canada and the United States have been working on new standards for trains that carry flammable fuel. – Photograph by Paul Chiasson, Associated Press

Three days after an oil train derailed and exploded in 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, Greg Saxton wandered through the disaster site inspecting tank cars.

For Saxton, the damage was personal. Some of the tank cars were built by Greenbrier, an Oregon-based manufacturer where he’s chief engineer. Almost every car that derailed was punctured, some in multiple places. Crude oil flowed from the gashes, fueling the flames, covering the ground, and running off into nearby waterways.

Each day, as Saxton returned to the disaster zone, he passed a Roman Catholic church. “We never came and went when there wasn’t a funeral going on,” he said.

In the wake of this and other recent accidents as energy production soars in North America, Canadian and U.S. regulators are proposing new safety rules for tank cars that carry oil, ethanol, and other flammable liquids. Saxton and Greenbrier have pushed for swift changes, but others in the industry are asking for more time to retrofit cars like the type that exploded at Lac-Mégantic. (See related stories: “Oil Train Derails in Lynchburg, Virginia” and “North Dakota Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risks of Transporting Crude“)

“If you don’t set an aggressive time line, you won’t see improvements as quickly as the current safety demands require,” Jack Isselmann, a Greenbrier spokesman, said. “We’ve been frankly just perplexed and confused by the resistance.”

Industry Pushes for More Time

The tank cars that derailed at Lac-Mégantic were built before October 2011, when the American Railway Association mandated safety enhancements to the oil and ethanol tankers known in the industry as DOT-111 cars. The cars lacked puncture-resistant steel jackets, thermal insulation, and heavy steel shields, all of which could have lessened the destruction, experts say.

In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed rules that, if finalized, would require higher safety standards for new oil cars. The rules also require owners to retrofit older cars or remove them from the rails by October 2017.

Canadian regulators in July mandated that DOT-111 tank cars built before 2014 be retrofitted or phased out by May 2017. Transport Canada, which regulates rail safety, has also proposed aggressive safety standards for new tank cars and will seek industry comment this fall before finalizing its rules.

Saxton and others at Greenbrier support the proposed regulations, which could be tremendously lucrative to the company. However, others in the rail supply industry say the proposed retrofit time line cannot be met.

The Railway Supply Institute—a trade organization that represents the rail industry—has asked DOT to allow legacy cars in the oil and ethanol fleet to remain on the rails until 2020.

Thomas Simpson, the institute’s president, said a survey of rail maintenance and repair shops found that only 15,000 of the roughly 50,000 non-jacketed legacy tank cars in the crude oil and ethanol fleet can be modified by the proposed 2017 deadline.

For many cars, the retrofit process would include adding thermal protection systems, thick steel plates at the ends, and outer steel jackets, as well as reconfiguring the bottom outlet valve to ensure it does not break off and release oil during a derailment.

That’s too much work to complete before the deadline, and the regulations have not yet been finalized, Simpson said.

The proposed deadline, he said, will “idle cars waiting for shop capacity and adversely affect the movement of crude and ethanol.”

Tying in the Keystone XL Debate

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and natural gas industry, also says the 2017 deadline to retrofit tank cars is too aggressive and could slow oil and gas production. (See related story: “Blocked on Keystone XL, Oil-Sands Industry Looks East“)

In comments to U.S. regulators and the press, API tied the safety upgrades to approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Alberta’s tar sands oil through the Midwest to Texas refineries.

Workers stand before mangled tanker cars at the crash site of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec
The deadly oil train accident at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, raised awareness of the potential dangers of transporting crude by rail. – Photograph by Ryan Remiorz, Associated Press

If Keystone is not built, API president Jack Gerard said in September that the cost of the proposed oil tank rules would nearly double to $45 billion because demand for transporting crude by rail would be higher.  (See related story and map: “Keystone XL: 4 Animals and 3 Habitats in Its Path” and “Interactive Map: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil“)

Both API and the Rail Supply Institute have also warned regulators that a short time line for retrofitting oil cars could cause a spike in truck shipments of oil and ethanol.

But Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group opposed to Keystone XL, called these arguments misleading. Swift said Keystone XL would have little impact on retrofitting tank cars, because most train traffic from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota moves to East Coast and West Coast refineries. He said that traffic would not be affected by the pipeline.

Keystone XL would have the capacity to carry 830,000 barrels of oil-sands crude a day, with up to 100,000 barrels a day set aside for crude from the Bakken. By 2016, the rail industry in Canada is expected to carry about as much oil as Keystone XL would. The U.S. rail industry is already there: Almost 760,000 barrels a day of crude had traveled by rail by August.

Swift said the costs to the oil industry are worthwhile if lives are saved. “The argument that we need to wait until the oil industry does not need tank cars until we can make them safe is ridiculous on its face,” he said.

Greenbrier Gears Up to Meet Demand

In February, Greenbrier introduced a beefed-up tanker with a 9/16-inch steel shell (1/8-inch thicker than many DOT-111 cars), 11-gauge steel jacket, removable bottom valve, and rollover protection for fittings along the top of the cars.

Greenbrier calls the tanker the “car of the future,” saying it’s eight times safer than the DOT-111. Isselmann said Greenbrier has received more than 3,000 orders for the new car and plans to double its manufacturing capacity by the end of the year.

In June, Greenbrier and Kansas rail-service company Watco joined forces to form GBW Railcar Services, creating the largest independent railcar repair-shop network in North America. Isselmann said the company plans to hire 400 workers and start second shifts at its factories to meet demand for retrofitting DOT-111 tank cars.

In comments to U.S. regulators, GBW said it currently has the capacity to retrofit more than 10 percent of the fleet of DOT-111 tank cars.

Isselmann said that number will grow as other companies take advantage of the market once regulators release final rules. For that reason, he said the industry’s current capacity to meet regulations is less important than its ability to ramp up quickly to capture the increased business that new safety standards could bring.

“This notion that the status quo is going to remain—it’s diversionary at best,” Isselmann said.

An oil tanker car at Lac-Megantic, Quebec
Almost every tanker in the Lac-Megantic accident was punctured. New standards would mandate stronger cars, among other measures. – Photograph by Ryan Remiorz, Associated Press

Some in the industry are responding to public concern before rules are finalized. In April, Irving Oil—the owner of Canada’s largest refinery, in Saint John, New Brunswick, where the Lac-Mégantic train was headed before the disaster—completed a voluntary conversion of its crude oil railcar fleet.

Also in April, Global Partners, one of the largest U.S. distributors of gasoline and other fuels, began requiring all crude oil unit trains making deliveries at its East and West Coast terminals to meet October 2011 safety standards for tank car design.

“As an industry, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to maximize public confidence in the safety of the system that carries these products across the country,” Eric Slifka, Global Partners’ CEO, said in a press release.

A Push to Harmonize Regulations

As the U.S. and Canada consider train safety regulations, oil and rail companies are pushing to ensure that the same tank cars can be used to haul flammable liquids in both countries.

Regulators say they are working together to make that happen. Lauren Armstrong, a spokeswoman at Transport Canada, said the department is holding technical discussions on new tank car standards with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

However, coordinating tank car regulations between the two countries would have to overcome current gaps, industry representatives say.

In April, Transport Canada banned the use of the oldest and least crash-resistant DOT-111 tank cars, which lacked bottom reinforcement.  The U.S. so far has not banned the cars from carrying oil and ethanol.

Canada also set a 2017 deadline for retrofitting the cars. In the U.S., regulators are expected to release final rules by early 2015. The process, however, could continue much longer.

The strongest standards will carry the day, said Thomas Simpson, the president of the Railway Supply Institute. Given the large amount of oil that moves between the two countries, Simpson said it makes no business sense for companies to keep two different sets of cars to meet the two sets of rules.

Communities Concerned About Safety

But as final rules are being hammered out in the U.S., some train safety advocates and community groups worry they are being left out of the process.

Karen Darch, co-chair of TRAC, a coalition of Illinois communities concerned about train congestion and rail safety, said she is hopeful that final rules will include a fast deadline to retrofit old cars. (See related story: “Illinois Village Leads Charge for Tougher Train Rules“)

But she said rail and oil industry lobbyists have had much more access to policymakers than community advocates, and she’s concerned they will have a greater impact on final rules.

“The inside players, the guys in the industry,” she said, “they seem to be able to be in front of the decision-makers more than we have been.”

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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