Tag Archives: Volatility

MUST-READ: North Dakota seizes initiative in CBR degasification

Repost from Railway Age

North Dakota seizes initiative in CBR degasification

By  David Thomas, Sept. 4, 2014
North Dakota seizes initiative in CBR degasification

The vital other shoe in crude by rail reform will drop not in Ottawa or Washington, but in Bismark, N.Dak., where, in the void created by federal inaction, officials are preparing to use state jurisdiction over natural resources to order the degasification of petroleum at the wellhead.

The initiative follows months of opaque pronouncements by federal regulators in both Canada and the U.S. with respect to the need to render volatile crude oil safe before transport by rail.

A spokesman for Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) told Railway Age that rules for the pre-loading treatment of crude oil for shipment by rail are not on its reform agenda, despite earlier, apparently overly enthusiastic, pronouncements.

While Transport Canada and the U.S. Department of Transportation have responded to the succession of oil train explosions this year and last by focusing on railroad operations, hazmat classification, and tank car design, some have been muddled on the need to treat the volatile cargo itself before its loading into railcars—this despite their own warnings that crude, fracked from the mid-continent Baaken shale formation, has the explosivity of gasoline.

Some oil producers and shippers have resisted any new regulatory requirement that they process crude for transport by rail the way they already must for delivery by pipeline.

Removal of toxic, explosive, and corrosive gases from crude for transport by pipeline has been required for years under the regulatory authority of the PHMSA. But neither PHMSA nor its DOT sibling Federal Railroad Administration have seen fit to require similar treatment—variously termed “degasification”, “conditioning”, “stabilization”, or “normalization”—for crude, destined for shipment by rail.

Crude shippers have complained since the first oil train calamity in July 2013 at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that PHMSA regulations for testing and classifying oil for transport by rail were imprecise. Such confusion is only augmented by PHSMA’s twice-stated reference to a purported “requirement” that dangerous gases be removed before crude is loaded into railcars.

The most recent such PHMSA pronouncement in a June 11, 2014 letter to the National Transportation Safety Board reiterated an earlier safety alert:

“On Jan. 2, 2014, PHMSA also issued a safety alert warning of the flammability of the crude oil extracted from the Bakken Shale region in the United States. PHMSA noted that the alert reinforces the requirement to properly test, characterize, classify, and where appropriate, sufficiently degasify hazardous materials prior to transportation.”

Railway Age asked the PHMSA media relations office to clarify the requirement to “degasify,” and to cite the underlying legislative or regulatory authority. A PHMSA spokesperson researched the inquiry and responded that there was in fact no such legal basis in existence or under formal consideration. The PHMSA spokesman referred us to North Dakota, which was contemplating the introduction of compulsory degasification.

Indeed, the oil and gas division of the North Dakota Industrial Commission has announced a public hearing for Sept. 23, on the “oil conditioning practices” in the state’s three light-oil pools: Bakken, Three Forks, and Sanich. Oil producers are invited to propose “methods to effectively reduce the light hydrocarbons in crude oil.”

Division spokesperson Alison Ritter told Railway Age, “The hearing is a first step in conditioning the oil to make it as safe as possible for transport.” She said that gas/liquid separators are already required at all North Dakota wellheads. At issue is whether they are being effectively used to render so-called “hot crude” safe for rail transport.

Separators boil off light hydrocarbons such as ethane, butane, and propane from crude oil, reducing its vapor pressure and propensity to explode. Heavy and corrosive hydrogen sulfide is also removed for pipeline transport. None of this is compulsory for shipment by rail.

North Dakota had been an uncritical booster of CBR even after Lac-Mégantic, until the fourth of the conflagrations occurred Dec. 30, 2013, on the outskirts of Casselton, when a westbound BNSF grain train derailed in the path of an eastbound BNSF oil train.

North Dakota is also proceeding with the training and deployment of its own rail inspectors, who will enforce FRA and PHSMA regulations within the state.


    Marathon Petroleum questions volatility of Bakken crude, but much remains unknown

    Repost from

    New lab test shows Bakken crude may be less dangerous than earlier data suggest

    By Cezary Podkul NEW YORK  Feb 26, 2014

    Feb 26 (Reuters) – A study of a fresh sample of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota published this week showed sharply lower levels of volatile vapors compared to previous tests, potentially raising new questions about the danger of shipping it by rail.

    The latest data from Marathon Petroleum’s Capline Pipeline unit, which publishes so-called “assays” on the quality of over 100 types of crude on its website, showed a sharp fall in the oil’s vapor pressure, a common measure of a fuel’s ability to evaporate and give off combustible gases.

    While the data offers only a single snapshot of the properties for a batch of so-called “North Dakota Sweet”, a term for Bakken crude, it may raise more questions about the combustibility of the oil, which has been cited in several fiery derailments in recent months.

    The data emerges just as U.S. regulators impose new rules requiring more testing of Bakken crude for fear it is prone to explosion during accidents. Industry officials are appearing before a House committee in Washington on Wednesday to discuss the issue.

    Capline’s latest Bakken assay, dated 14 January, was posted on its website this week, shortly after a Wall Street Journal story on Monday used older Capline data to show Bakken crude carries more combustible gases than other varieties. While Bakken’s ultra-light properties are generally well known, hard data is rarely made public.

    Regulators are seeking more information on Bakken crude from oil shippers and are also conducting their own data collection and sampling. It is not clear when or if those results will be released.

    Capline’s newest test showed a vapor pressure reading of 5.94 pounds per square inch (psi). The reading compares with a psi of 8.75 for a test done in February 2013 and is nearly 4 pounds per square inch lower than the highest reading, 9.7 psi, recorded by Capline in December 2010. A higher psi reading generally indicates a liquid fuel is more prone to give off combustible gases.

    It was not clear why the rate had declined so sharply, or whether that decline is broadly reflective of the region as a whole. One expert who reviewed the data said the wide fluctuation appeared unusual, but not conclusive of any trend.

    “I would expect it to go up and down, it’s going to vary, but that’s a big drop,” Connie M. Hendrickson, chemist with Arkon Consultants in Dallas, Texas, told Reuters. “Without extra sampling and extra testing, we just don’t know.”

    A spokesman for Marathon declined to comment on the decrease, other than to say the firm has “a process in place to test crude oil for quality oversight purposes”. The samples are generally taken at the same spot on the pipeline, the spokesman said.

    It is not clear how much Bakken runs through the Capline, a 1.3 million barrels-per-day (bpd) pipeline running north from St. James, Louisiana, to Illinois. The Marathon spokesman declined to provide operating rates for the pipeline.

    To be sure, Capline’s latest data still show Bakken crude ranks higher in volatility than most other crudes, based on vapor pressure tests conducted by the company. At the 5.94 psi, for example, Capline’s latest Bakken sample still ranks more than double that of Light Louisiana Sweet crude, which tested at 2.38 psi in May 2013.

    Still, the wider range of readings and the infrequency of the testing suggests there remains much uncertainty about the quality of Bakken crude.

    Other data sets have suggested not only that the crude is light by its nature – Bakken reserves are rich in so-called “light ends” like butane, propane and other byproducts of petroleum – but that it is also growing lighter.

    Refiner Tesoro Corp. said in a 2013 presentation that its purchases of crude sourced from North Dakota’s Bakken region have increased in volatility, topping readings of 12 psi in 2013.

    Some lawmakers have asked for more data to aid regulatory efforts on this issue.

    “It is not in anyone’s best interest to knee-jerk a response without data,” North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp said in an interview this week.