Category Archives: Ethanol

Derailment explosion – 3rd accident in North America involving upgraded DOT-117R tank cars

Repost from DeSmog

Ethanol Train Derails and Burns in Texas, Killing Horses and Spurring Evacuation

By Justin Mikulka, April 25, 2019
Fort Worth ethanol train fires
Screen shot of emergency personnel watching an ethanol train burn near Fort Worth, Texas. Credit: Glen E. Ellman

Early in the morning on April 24, an ethanol train derailed, exploded, and burned near Fort Worth, Texas, reportedly destroying a horse stable, killing three horses, and causing the evacuation of nearby homes. According to early reports, 20 tank cars left the tracks, with at least five rupturing and burning.

While specific details have not yet been released, it appears to be a unit train of ethanol using the federally mandated DOT-117R tank cars, based on the images showing tank car markings. This is now the third accident in North America involving the upgraded DOT-117R tank cars, all resulting in major spills of either oil or ethanol.

This latest fiery derailment highlights the dangers to the estimated 25 million people living within the blast zone along rail lines across North America. While this incident had no human fatalities, the oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 killed 47 people, devastating the small Canadian town. As I’ve exhaustively reported, the same risk factors for hauling oil by rail, and increasingly, ethanol, are still in place years after the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

In Texas, first responders were quickly on the scene and able to contain the fire, preventing the situation from worsening. When ethanol rail tank cars are involved in fires, the unpunctured tanks can explode as the fire increases the temperature and pressure in the full tanks.

For example, after a BNSF train derailed in Montana in August 2012, eight of the 14 cars carrying ethanol caught fire, resulting in an explosion and the signature “bomb train” mushroom cloud–shaped ball of fire.

Video: Fort Worth ethanol train derailment. Credit: Glen E. Ellman

Ethanol Industry Adopting Risky Oil Train Practices

In 2016 DeSmog published a series of articles analyzing why oil trains were derailing at over twice the rate of ethanol trains. Likely contributing factors included the fact that the derailing oil trains were longer and heavier than ethanol trains.

The oil industry was moving oil using “unit trains,” which are long trains dedicated to a single commodity, while the ethanol industry was using shorter trains. The majority of ethanol was shipped as part of manifest trains, carrying multiple types of cargo and not just ethanol.

As part of the analysis, DeSmog found that derailing ethanol trains tended to be longer trains of 100 or more cars.

However, longer trains are more profitable, and in 2016 the ethanol industry noted it intended to follow the lead of the oil industry and begin to move more ethanol via long unit trains. This announcement led to the following conclusion in the 2016 DeSmog series:

“Based on the ethanol industry’s interest in using more unit trains for ‘efficiency,’ and the fact that it is allowed to transport ethanol in the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars until 2023, perhaps it won’t be long before ethanol trains are known as bomb trains too.”

And while the DOT-111 tank cars are less robust than the DOT-117R tank cars, both have a history indicating neither are safe to move flammable liquids in unit trains. And DOT-117R tank cars are heavier than DOT-111s, adding another factor that increases chances for train derailment.

Bomb Train Risks Continue to Grow

After a string of oil trains filled with volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale derailed and exploded in 2013 and 2014, there was a push for new safety regulations for trains carrying flammable materials including crude oil and ethanol.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation released new regulations, which, as DeSmog noted at the time, were a big win for the oil and rail industries and their lobbyists. While touted as increasing safety, these watered-down rules did not address the trains’ known risk factors or require the oil and rail industries to implement proven safety technologies. The one requirement in the new 2015 regulations that would have greatly improved safety mandated that railroads transition to modern braking systems. That requirement has since been repealed.

The rail industry frequently calls the upgraded tank cars, which include DOT-117Rs and were required by federal regulators, a safety improvement. However, in the first two derailments involving the new cars, those purportedly safer tank cars led to major oil spills. One of those occurred in February in Manitoba, Canada, and now the Fort Worth derailment appears to represent a third example of these upgraded rail cars’ failed safety.

In 2014 during rail safety discussions, the rail industry was recommending using much more robust tank cars — known as “pressure cars” — to move the volatile crude oil implicated in oil train explosions, but federal regulators did not incorporate the recommendation into the final rules. That is why oil and ethanol continue to be moved in rail cars that fail and lead to large leaks and fires during derailments.

In Utah a train carrying propane in pressure cars recently derailed, highlighting the risk of even those more robust tank cars. That derailment caused a propane leak, and hazmat experts decided the safest thing to do was detonate the tank cars, a situation possible when in rural Utah. However, health experts were concerned about the impact on air quality for local residents.

Despite the many examples of the risks of moving these flammable materials by rail, President Trump recently issued an executive order mandating federal regulators allow moving liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail as soon as next year.

These risks are why a group of people were just arrested for blocking oil train tracks in Oregon. And why legislators in the state of Washington have passed legislation requiring oil be stabilized — to make it less volatile and likely to ignite — prior to its loading on rail tank cars for shipment. Several states also are looking at passing laws requiring two-person crews for freight trains to improve safety. One of the factors cited in the deadly Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster was that the train was operated by a single person.

States are moving to address these very real, well-documented, and preventable risk factors because the U.S. federal government has fallen short in mitigating those risks to American communities from the oil and rail industries. These regulatory shortcomings, which began under President Obama’s administration, have only intensified under the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory approach. With the prospect of LNG trains in the near future — along with record amounts of oil trains coming from Canada to U.S. ports and refineries — the risks of “bomb train” accidents (the nickname bestowed by nervous rail operators) continue to grow.

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    Valero, other refiners spend more on U.S. clean fuel standards, look for savings through exports

    Repost from Reuters
    [Editor: Significant quote: “The price of credits has fuel makers like PBF Energy Inc and Valero looking to increase exports, which are not subject to the regulations, as a way to escape the costs.”  (emph. added) – RS]

    Refiners on track to spend record on U.S. clean fuel standards

    By Jarrett Renshaw, Aug 10, 2016 4:26pm EDT

    Major refiners like Valero Energy Corp are on track to pay record amounts this year for credits to comply with U.S. renewable fuel rules, corporate filings show, a trend that hurts profits and has some looking to export more to avoid the cost.

    Refiners and fuel importers are required to meet a U.S. biofuel quota of roughly 10 percent through blending products like ethanol into gasoline and diesel. If they fall short, they can buy credits generated by companies in compliance. But the cost of the credits, known as Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), has jumped.

    The rising costs have hurt a sector already struggling with huge global fuel stockpiles. The S&P 1500 index of refining and marketing companies has fallen 18 percent so far in 2016, compared with a 6.5 percent gain for the broader market.

    In the first half of 2016, a collection of 10 refinery owners including Marathon Petroleum Corp, spent at least $1.1 billion buying RINs, a Reuters review of their filings showed. This puts them on track to surpass the annual record of $1.3 billion the same group spent in 2013.

    Refinery executives sharply criticized the regulations during recent earnings calls, saying the burden helped bring about the weakest profits in five years.

    “RINs continue to be an egregious tax on our business and have become our single largest operating expense, exceeding labor, maintenance and energy costs,” CVR Refining Chief Executive Jack Lipinski said last month.

    Marathon Chief Executive Gary Heminger said on a call last month that demand for RINs are going to outpace supply and the company wanted to see renewable fuel standards eased.

    Refiners without blending or retail outlets, such as Delta Air Lines and CVR, have to buy a greater percentage of RINs because they don’t create their own. Delta is part of a refiner group challenging fuel standards through the courts.

    Supporters of the existing policy, including the influential corn lobby, said the regulations have produced the desired effect: more renewable fuels in the nation’s gasoline and diesel. They noted refiners can avoid the cost of RINs by investing in blending operations.

    “Companies that refuse to blend more renewable fuel will end up paying a premium to other market participants, including speculators, but this is a choice,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, which represents ethanol producers.

    ESCAPE THROUGH EXPORTS

    Renewable fuel credits averaged about 78 cents apiece in the second quarter, about 25 percent above the same period a year ago, according to Oil Price Information Service data analyzed by Reuters.

    Prices for the credits have rallied on more ambitious targets from U.S. regulators on the volumes of ethanol required to be blended with gasoline, traders and industry sources said.

    The price of credits has fuel makers like PBF Energy Inc and Valero looking to increase exports, which are not subject to the regulations, as a way to escape the costs.

    PBF Chief Executive Thomas Nimbley said on an earnings call last month that it was “very important” that they expand their refined product export operations, citing RINs as a driver.

    Refiners are also lobbying to shift the responsibility of compliance from their industry to blenders and distributors who mix gasoline with ethanol for delivery to filling stations.

    (Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson)
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      NY TIMES / AP: Slow Progress Seen on Faulty Rail Cars

      Repost from the New York Times (AP)

      Upgrades to Unsafe Tank Cars Could Take 15 Years, Board Says

      By Matthew Brown, Associated Press, July 13, 2016, 2:30 A.M. E.D.T.
      Oil Train Accidents
      FILE–In this June 3, 2016, file frame from video provided by KGW-TV, smoke billows from a Union Pacific train that derailed near Mosier, Ore., in the scenic Columbia River Gorge. U.S. safety officials say they’ve seen slow progress in efforts to upgrade or replace tens of thousands of rupture-prone rail cars used to transport oil and ethanol, despite a string of fiery derailments. (KGW-TV via AP, file)

      BILLINGS, Mont. — Accident-prone tank cars used to haul crude oil and ethanol by rail could remain in service for another 15 years under federal rules that allow companies to phase in upgrades to the aging fleet, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

      Transportation officials and railroad representatives have touted the rules as a key piece of their efforts to stave off future disasters, following a string of fiery derailments and major spills that raised concerns about the crude-by-rail industry.

      Yet without mandatory, periodic benchmarks for meeting the requirements, the decision to upgrade to safer tank car designs “is left entirely to tank car fleet owners, and may be driven by market factor influences, not safety improvements,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

      Tom Simpson with the Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car manufacturers and owners, said the industry is committed to putting stronger cars in place. Members of the group will meet deadlines for replacing or upgrading the cars, he said, noting that demand for rail cars has eased after crude-by-rail shipments decreased over the past two years in response to lower oil prices.

      “The need to modify or install new cars isn’t as urgent as when the rule was issued,” Simpson said.

      In recent years, accidents involving the older cars have occurred in Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, Illinois, West Virginia and Canada.

      The most notable was in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train derailed in 2013. During the most recent accident last month in Oregon, 42,000 gallons of crude oil spilled, sparking a massive fire that burned for 14 hours near the small town of Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge.

      Cars built before the rule was enacted do not have to be fully replaced until 2029, although most would have to come off the tracks sooner.

      Just over 10,300 stronger tank cars mandated by the new rules are available for service, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press from the Association of American Railroads.

      That’s equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the 51,500 tank cars used to haul crude and ethanol during the first quarter of 2016.

      Transportation Department Press Secretary Clark Pettig said in response to the NTSB’s criticism that the schedule to retrofit older cars was locked in by Congress in a transportation bill approved last year. The Congressional deadline represents “the absolute last moment” to meet the new standards, Pettig said.

      “We agree with NTSB that industry should work to beat those deadlines,” he said.

      A Wednesday meeting was planned in Washington, D.C., where government and industry officials were set to update the safety board on progress addressing the issue.

      Safety board member Robert Sumwalt told the Associated Press that federal regulators need to set milestones to hold the industry accountable.

      “There’s been 28 accidents over the past 10 years. That’s almost three accidents a year,” Sumwalt said. “Unfortunately, history shows we probably will have more accidents involving flammable liquids.”

      A bill from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and other Democratic lawmakers would offer tax credits for companies that upgrade their cars during the next several years.

      “Communities near train tracks, like Mosier, Oregon, must be confident that companies are using the safest tank cars possible,” Wyden said.

      The railroad association said only 700 of the least resilient model of the older-style tank cars remain in service. Most of the cars in current use have at least some improvements, such as shields at either end of the car to help prevent punctures during derailments.

      Transportation officials cautioned, however, that thousands of idled “legacy cars” could quickly come back online if oil prices rise and shipment volumes rebound.

      Most tank cars are owned or leased by companies that ship fuel by rail, not the railroads themselves.

      “Every tank car carrying crude or ethanol needs to be upgraded or replaced,” said railroad association spokesman Ed Greenberg.

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