Category Archives: Bakken Crude

Five myths about crude oil by rail

Repost from TRAINS The Magazine of Railroading

A lot of what you’ve been hearing is not true. It’s time to set the record straight


Fred W. Frailey, Trains Magazine, Feb2014, Vol. 74 Issue 2, p17

Three years have passed since the village was rocked by the scandal, namely the remarriage, after half a century of divorce, of Mr. Big Rail and Ms. Crude Oil. People are still aghast. Who would have imagined these two would find each other attractive again? Yet a lot of loose tongues are still spreading gossip, and frankly, much of it is simply not true. To promote harmony in the village, your scribe this month wishes to set the record straight. Here are five commonly articulated myths that have no basis in fact.

1. It’s just a fling and won’t last. The way oil is priced worldwide virtually guarantees this marriage will endure. The world oil price (Brent) in recent years has usually been $10 to $25 a barrel higher than the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) price for oil from the U.S. interior, and oil from new discoveries in North Dakota and Canada is further discounted from the WTI price. Follow me so far? Refineries on the west and east coasts are not reached by pipelines from the country’s oil-producing midsection, and had to pay the Brent price (or something close to it) to buy oil from overseas or Alaska’s North Slope. It was difficult for these refiners to compete and stay in business.

Now these coastal refineries are flocking to oil by rail like drowning men to life preservers. If they can get oil $10 to $25 a barrel cheaper, they’re way ahead even after paying the railroads. Therefore, the east and west coasts, I maintain, will be the ultimate destination for much, if not most, of the oil coming from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Saskatchewan. And the only way to get it there is by rail.

2. The Keystone XL pipeline will disrupt the marriage. Not at all. TransCanada’s XL, according to the environmental impact statement, is supposed to bring up to 730,000 barrels a day of stuff from Canada (more about “stuff” in a minute) to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and pick up another 100,000 barrels of North Dakota oil as it passes through that state. But there are problems with the XL. First, it may never be approved by the U.S. government. Second, Gulf Coast refineries are being flooded by light sweet crude oil of the sort North Dakota produces. I concede that pipelines can get North Dakota crude to the Gulf cheaper than railroads, but question whether there will be much appetite for it. Third, the “stuff” from Canada is not well-suited to pipelines.

3. Railroads cannot compete with pipelines head to head. In theory, that’s largely true. Between Point A and Point B, if there are no complicating hang-ups, pipe will underprice rail. Now, let’s talk about “stuff:’ The oil being extracted in northern Alberta, above Edmonton, is so heavy that you cannot do conventional drilling. Either you mine it and extract the oil from the sand, or you heat it underground and boil it out, so to speak. What you get is an oil called bitumen. Gulf Coast refiners are largely geared for this heavy oil – it’s a natural destination for this oil – but there’s a catch: Bitumen will not flow through a pipeline. Pipelines shippers have to buy condensate. transport it to northern Alberta, and then dilute the bitumen with it so that they end up pumping 72 percent bitumen and 28 percent condensate, or “stuff:’ So what goes through the pipe is 28 percent waste. At the other end, refiners have to remove the diluent. It’s a costly process. At least a couple of oil industry experts who have studied the economics of all this say bitumen can be shipped a lot cheaper by unit train, particularly if you use insulated tank cars with coils for steam injection to permit raw bitumen to be loaded and unloaded. Facilities that will do just that are being built or planned at both ends. The same experts say that even if you dilute the bitumen with 18 percent condensate to make it flow in and out of ordinary tank cars, unit trains are still the low-cost winner, although not by much.

4. Crude oil doesn’t explode. That was the prevailing wisdom before a runaway, unmanned crude oil train piled up in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July, killing dozens. And in November an Alabama & Gulf Coast crude oil train derailed over a wooden trestle near Aliceville, Ala., and press reports state that three cars of crude exploded (while other derailed cars did not). Today, I suppose the popular belief is that crude oil is explosive. The truth is that both myths are untrue (or true, take your pick). The lighter the crude oil, the more likely it will be to contain explosive elements such as butane and benzene that may separate from the heavy components during transport. If released and ignited, an explosion may result, according to published safety data sheets. Both the Lac-Megantic and Aliceville accidents involved light sweet crude that originated in North Dakota. As for tar-like bitumen, you could probably hit it with a flamethrower with no explosive effects.

5. The backlog of tank car orders is creating a bubble that will burst. That bit of village gossip had validity because after all, booms are followed by busts, and freight car manufacturers aren’t exempt. But after the Association of American Railroads in November got behind the idea of retrofitting (or reassigning or scrapping) 78,000 of the 92,001]. cars hauling flammable liquids such as ethanol and crude oil, it pretty much insured that the car builders will be turning out tank cars at their peak 24,000-a4 year rate for some time to come. That bust appears to be a long way off. ~

Fred W. Frailey is a TRAINS special correspondent and blogs on

Oil Shipments Turn Albany Into “Houston on the Hudson” As Communities Across Country Fight Oil-By-Rail Proposals

Oil Shipments Turn Albany Into “Houston on the Hudson” As Communities Across Country Fight Oil-By-Rail Proposals (via Desmogblog)

Thu, 2014-03-27 04:18Justin Mikulka Due to a massive increase in the movement of crude oil by rail in the past few years, communities across the country are facing the daunting prospect of becoming part of the oil industry’s infrastructure. In Pittsburg…

SF Chronicle: Green groups sue Bay Area Air Quality Management District

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Oil trains into Richmond spark lawsuit

By David R. Baker, April 5, 2014
A BNSF Railway train, above, hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. Photo: Matthew Brown, Associated Press
A BNSF Railway train, above, hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. Photo: Matthew Brown, Associated Press

Little noticed by neighbors, trains carrying crude oil from the Great Plains have been rumbling into a Richmond rail yard.

The cargo is the same kind of crude that fueled a deadly explosion last summer when a train carrying the oil derailed in a small Quebec town, killing 47. Now environmentalists are suing to prevent any more shipments to Richmond.

The suit, filed last week in state Superior Court in San Francisco, would revoke a permit issued by a regional agency in February that allows Kinder Morgan to unload oil trains in Richmond at a facility originally built to unload ethanol.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District granted the permit without studying how the switch from shipping ethanol to oil could affect the environment, said Kristen Boyles, staff attorney with Earthjustice, the group that filed the suit on behalf of four other environmental organizations.

A placard on a tank car in North Dakota, below, warns that it's carrying flammable crude oil. Trains like these are being used more frequently to deliver petroleum to California. Photo: Matthew Brown, Associated Press
A placard on a tank car in North Dakota, below, warns that it’s carrying flammable crude oil. Trains like these are being used more frequently to deliver petroleum to California. Photo: Matthew Brown, Associated Press

“These things are going in without a lot of thought to their safety, their impact on the environment and their possible health effects,” Boyles said. “That’s what’s really frustrating with this situation – how little we know until this is rolling through our backyards.”

Kinder Morgan declined comment.

Ralph Borrmann, an agency spokesman, said the change in fuels handled by Kinder Morgan’s rail-yard facility would not increase air pollution – his agency’s primary concern.

“There were no emissions consequences as a result of the permit, no net increase of emissions, which is what we look at,” Borrmann said.

Just a few years ago, California didn’t import oil by rail. But that’s changing fast.

In 2009, railways carried just 45,000 barrels of oil into the Golden State, according to the California Energy Commission. By last year, that number had soared to 6.2 million barrels. A barrel equals 42 gallons.

Petroleum glut

California’s refineries have turned to rail to access a glut of petroleum in the Great Plains. Oil production in the Bakken Shale formation that lies beneath North Dakota and Montana has surged so much, so quickly, that area’s pipelines lack the capacity to transport the fuel. As a result, the Bakken oil sells at a discount to other kinds of crude.

Oil by rail is “about discounted oil, delivered to your doorstep,” said Gordon Schremp, senior analyst with the Energy Commission.

The amount of oil carried by rail is rising nationwide. While most of those shipments reach their destination without incident, the United States and Canada have recently seen a series of oil-train accidents leading to explosions and fires, including last July’s derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. In January, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an alert warning that Bakken crude, much lighter than many other grades of oil, may be more flammable as well.

Benicia refinery

The warning spurred opposition to a series of oil-by-rail projects in California. Valero’s refinery in Benicia is seeking approval to build a rail yard that could move 70,000 barrels of oil each day, replacing more than half of the petroleum the refinery now imports from abroad, via ship.

In Pittsburg, another project would bring in oil by ship, pipeline and rail. The $200 million proposal, by WesPac Energy, would refurbish an old Pacific Gas and Electric Co. facility to import, store and supply oil to Bay Area refineries.

Community groups have spent months fighting those proposals. But most Richmond residents knew nothing about Kinder Morgan’s Richmond rail facility until television station KPIX reported on the issue last month.

Kinder Morgan applied to convert its existing ethanol offloading facility last year, and won an operating permit from the air district in February. KPIX filmed trucks carrying oil from the facility to the Tesoro refinery in Martinez.

Tesoro’s comment

A Tesoro spokeswoman on Friday declined to confirm whether the refinery collaborates with Kinder Morgan’s Richmond facility. But she said the refinery uses about 5,000 to 10,000 barrels of oil per day taken from rail shipments, equal to between two and four train shipments per month.

Earthjustice and its partners in the suit – the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club – want Kinder Morgan’s operating permit in Richmond revoked until the company conducts a full environmental impact review.

“The risk of train accidents is huge with this kind of crude oil,” Boyles said.

A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, CA. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT) Photo: Randall Benton, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, CA. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT) Photo: Randall Benton, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Community opposition to WesPac Energy in Pittsburg, CA

Repost from The Contra Costa Times

Fight over oil terminal project symbolizes Pittsburg’s competing priorities

By Eve Mitchell
Contra Costa Times 04/04/2014
Two girls walk up the pier at the River View Park in Pittsburg as the WesPac project can be seen to the right in Pittsburg, Calif., on Friday, March 14,
Two girls walk up the pier at the River View Park in Pittsburg as the WesPac project can be seen to the right in Pittsburg, Calif., on Friday, March 14, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

PITTSBURG — Heavy industry has long been woven into this city’s blue-collar fabric, ranging from chemical to steel to power plants. But so, too, are homes and upscale businesses along Pittsburg’s waterfront, which the city has worked to transform into a thriving bedroom community complete with a downtown cigar lounge and specialty food store that sells caviar.

Those two worlds collided with a developer’s proposal to ship domestic and imported crude oil to a vacant industrial parcel where 16 large storage tanks — now empty — once stored fuel oil used to run a former PG&E power plant more than 25 years ago.

The proposal has generated fierce community opposition, and in January city officials reopened a public review period for sections of a draft environmental impact report in response to safety, air quality and other environmental concerns. The controversy is a reminder of the tension that has long existed along the waterfront in Contra Costa County, which is home to power plants, refineries, manufacturing and other industrial sites that coexist uneasily with suburban housing developments and quaint downtowns.

“There are concerns at multiple levels. You’re bringing in something that is really flammable — material with the potential for explosion — and you are bringing it into a densely populated area,” said Susan Burkitt, who lives near the proposed project and is a founder of the Pittsburg Defense Council, which along with several environmental groups is fighting the plan.

To date, more than 4,000 residents in this city of 66,000 have signed a petition against the project, which would receive 88 million barrels annually of domestic crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota, Colorado, west Texas and New Mexico shipped by rail, as well as imported crude brought in by marine vessels, to a 125-acre parcel next to what is now the NRG power plant.

As part of the joint venture of WesPac Energy and Oiltanking Holding Americas, the oil would be shipped by pipeline from the terminal to local refineries. Pittsburg High School students have held an on-campus protest against the project and spoken out against it at City Council meetings.

Pittsburg, which takes its name from the legendary Pennsylvania steel town, has deep industrial roots. In 2010, steel manufacturer USS-Posco Industries marked 100 years of operations here, and Dow Chemical has been in Pittsburg since 1939.

Previous disputes have erupted over a decision by county supervisors in 1990 to locate the Keller Canyon landfill in Pittsburg and Dow’s plan to build a hazardous waste incinerator in 1992 (Dow later dropped the proposal). In 2009, refiner Tesoro stopped storing petroleum coke dust at its inactive terminal on East Third Street after neighbors complained about soot being spread into downtown.

The latest flap is not surprising, said former City Councilman Bob Lewis, who served from 1989 to 2002. “That’s a situation to be expected in Pittsburg, where residential uses are adjacent to industrial uses. It’s nothing new.”

But Joe Canciamilla, a former state assemblyman who served on the council from 1987 to 1996, said the city bears some responsibility for the conflict that has arisen over the WesPac project.

“The area is transitioning and becoming more residential than industrial. The city to some degree is responsible for engineering this kind of conflict by approving new residences close to a lot of these industrial sites,” said Canciamilla, referring to redevelopment efforts that have revitalized the city’s downtown. “The city spent millions of dollars subsidizing properties and development in the area, and then to turn around (and consider) putting in a massive new industrial development is certainly going to create some level of conflict.”

Critics point out that unlike the buffer zone around Dow’s Pittsburg operations, where the closest homes are about a mile away, there is no such buffer called for in the WesPac proposal. Growing national concerns about the safety of moving crude by rail has also spurred the opposition.

Drewcilla Wyatt’s home is about a quarter-mile from where WesPac wants to build a rail component that would unload 100 railcars of crude a day five days a week at an existing train yard along North Parkside Drive.

“Pittsburg has moved up since I came in. We have a functioning downtown,” she said. “We have enough trains. Trains run here all night and day. What if a train spills, what if it catches fire? This is so close to homes.”

Proponents of the $200 million project say it would help refineries take advantage of a domestic oil boom at a time when California production is falling. WesPac officials say the project would be safe, address environmental concerns raised by opponents, create jobs and provide $800,000 in yearly property tax and tidelands lease revenue to the city.

“I think WesPac is a very good fit for the city of Pittsburg. It is proposed to be developed in an area zoned for heavy industry, so that’s the only thing that can go in there,” said Brad Nail, who retired as the city’s economic director in 2011.

Nail said he understands that redevelopment in the area helped set the stage for conflict over the project. “But Pittsburg historically is an industrial town. … If you buy a home in the marina downtown area, you are very aware there is industry there.”

More than 1,200 housing units have been built since 1980 in the downtown and waterfront area, according to city records.

The desire to maximize the economic potential of Contra Costa’s waterfront has been a goal of Supervisor Federal Glover, who launched the Northern Waterfront Economic Development initiative last year.

Glover, a former Pittsburg councilman, has not taken a formal position on the WesPac project, and a consultant’s report prepared for his initiative concludes that the waterfront could become more competitive by bringing in new industries such as clean technology and green energy. But such changes are not going to happen right away, according to Glover.

“We are not going to run in tomorrow and be able to have all the nice green industries and the high-tech stuff,” he said. “It’s a blend, and how you are able to balance out what you have in the area.”