Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the East Coast’s largest refinery, will close within the next month, an announcement that comes days after a series of explosions rocked the city and reverberated throughout the country.
Here’s a look back at the events that lead up the fire, which the refinery’s CEO said Wednesday “made it impossible” to “continue operations.”
The formation: The South Philly complex, which is technically two different refineries, dates back more than a century. Sunoco acquires both refineries, and transferred the complex in 2012 to a joint venture between Sunoco and the Carlyle Group. The joint venture is named Philadelphia Energy Solutions.
January 22, 2018
Bankruptcy: Philadelphia Energy Solutions LLC files a bankruptcy plan in an effort to restructure $525 million of debt and bring in new owners, pointing the finger toward the rising cost of renewable energy credits for its financial distress.
Ethanol Train Derails and Burns in Texas, Killing Horses and Spurring Evacuation
By Justin Mikulka, April 25, 2019
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.
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.
Deadly explosion in Durham, North Carolina on same day as Trump’s order
By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, April 17, 2019 – 15:13
On April 10, first responders in Durham, North Carolina, responded to a suspected natural gas leak. While they were evacuating people from the area, the gas exploded, killing one person and injuring at least 25.
The same day Durham was dealing with the aftermath of a deadly natural gas explosion, President Donald Trump was issuing an executive order directing federal regulators to create new rules allowing rail companies to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) by train in the next 13 months, or less.
The gas and rail industries have lobbied for years to allow LNG by rail, and have found a willing partner in the Trump administration.Last week’s executive order was cheered by lobbyists for both natural gas and rail. One lobbyist, Charlie Riedl of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, immediately spoke about the purported safety of moving natural gas in any form.
“It’s really hard to even get it to ignite to begin with in a gaseous format, let alone in a liquid format,” Riedl told Bloomberg.
As I wrote in January 2017, Robert Fronczak, a top official at the Association of American Railroads (AAR), a railroad industry lobbying group, gave the industry position on LNG by rail in a late 2016 presentation titled, “Getting LNG Onto the Rails.”
At the Energy by Rail conference, Fronczak noted that the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was researching the risks of transporting LNG by rail, but that according to Fronczak, “That could take several years to do and we don’t think it’s necessary to wait all that long … We think they should allow it immediately.”
Fronczak’s presentation also included a slide titled, “What DOT Should Do?” (DOT refers to the Department of Transportation.) His presentation recommended transporting LNG in a class of refrigerated tank cars called DOT-113, which is used to move the hydrocarbon ethylene.
In 2017, DeSmog asked the Federal Railroad Administration about the planned testing around LNG by rail, but the response provided few details: “The testing is still ongoing … there’s no prediction yet on a completion date.”
Last week DeSmog inquired again about the status of this research and received a similar response: “Additional tests are planned this year and next but full details are not yet available.”
These answers are typical of the communication from the FRA these days.
In a follow-up email I asked one question, “Simply put, how can we assure people that this is safe when the research hasn’t been done?”
The FRA‘s emailed response did not answer the question directly but, just as in Fronczak’s presentation, referenced the refrigerated tank cars used to transport ethylene: ”DOT-113 cryogenic tank cars have been in service for approximately 50 years transporting ethylene, refrigerated liquid (ethylene and methane have the same cryogenic and flammable characteristics) with a good safety record.” (Natural gas is primarily methane.)
The president has mandated that regulations allowing LNG by rail be in place in 13 months. However, the FRA currently isn’t providing any public information on actions the agency is taking to ensure this can be done safely. And while it is true that the DOT-113 tank cars have been moving hazardous materials safely for years, the number of these tanks cars in service is quite low compared to crude oil and ethanol. In 2015 there were under 13,000 car loads of product moved using DOT-113 tank cars.
To put that in perspective, according to a 2014 AAR document, U.S. railroads were transporting 9,500 carloads of crude oil in 2008 but by 2013, that number skyrocketed to 407,761 carloads. Crude oil trains weren’t experiencing major derailments before rail companies shifted to transporting oil in long unit trains of 100 cars or more at high volumes, which was the case in 2013, the year of the deadly Lac-Mégantic crude oil derailment.
The problems with moving oil by rail showed up once large amounts of crude oil began moving in these long trains dedicated to just moving crude oil (unit trains). As I’ve noted on DeSmog, the oil-by-rail boom also coincided with the use of heavier rail cars that could hold up to 286,000 pounds when fully loaded. The DOT-113 tank cars likely to carry LNG can hold the same weight.
In pushing for LNG by rail, Fronczak was just doing his job, which is to promote rail industry interests, that is, profits. That is what lobbyists are paid to do.
When contacted for comment, the AAR pointed to its recent press release on Trump’s executive order and the AAR‘s petition to allow LNG by rail. The rail lobbying group did not address questions about the AAR‘s current position on unit trains and train length regulations for LNG.
However, unlike the AAR, the FRA‘s job is to regulate the rail industry and protect the public from unnecessary risks.
Misleading Media Headlines
A headline on a story from the oil and gas trade site Oilprice.com, which also appeared on Yahoo Finance, dismisses concerns about the dangers of LNG by rail: “Environmentalists’ “Bomb Train” Concerns Are Overblown.” (“Bomb train” is the nickname rail operators gave oil trains after they began exploding with giant fireballs after derailing.)
While the headline is dismissive, the story itself includes information contradicting the headline and spelling out the very real safety concerns regarding LNG by rail. It mentions “plenty of cautionary tales from previous experiments in sending oil and gas by rail, from spills, explosions, and accidents” to the oil train disaster that killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.
Despite its headline and after citing industry views on the relative safety of LNG, the story goes on to say, “While that sounds like any cause for alarm and cries of ‘bomb trains’ is overblown, however, there is still a wide margin for risk if a tank of LNGwere ruptured or caused in any other way to come into contact with air.”
Utah’s Propane Bomb Train Previews LNG by Rail
An important detail in this conversation about moving LNG by rail is that the LNG likely would travel in much more robust, safer tank cars, the DOT-113 line, than even the new cars used to move ethanol and oil. Even though rail companies now are transporting oil in newer tank cars, those cars have failed repeatedly during derailments, resulting in large oil spills.
Liquefied propane currently travels in DOT-112 tank cars, which are also more robust than the ones used for oil and ethanol. At the end of March, a train moving propane in Utah derailed and the damage led to some propane leaking. However, the derailment was nothing like the typical oil train derailment, with multiple ruptured cars and major product releases.
Why aren’t oil and ethanol moved in the same tank cars as propane? This idea was floated at one point as the Department of Transportation was preparing its 2015 oil-by-rail regulations, but industry lobbyists quickly vetoed it. As a result, the tank cars that oil and ethanol travel in remain one of the many risk factors surrounding these products’ transport.
The accident in Utah showed that the tank cars used to move propane do a better job at preventing product leases than the ones used to move crude oil. However, it also highlights the risks of moving these flammable materials by rail.
While the train in Utah didn’t explode on its own after derailing, the damage to the rail cars carrying the propane and its explosion risks led responders to decide the best way to deal with the derailed cars was to detonate them in place.
Video of propane tank car detonation in Juab County, Utah. Credit: Juab County Sheriff’s Office
This was possible because it was in rural Utah, more than 70 miles from Salt Lake City and six miles outside a town of less than 700. However, the natural gas and rail industries’ top priority for introducing LNG by rail is to move LNG to the Northeast, which is experiencing pipeline bottlenecks.
That means trains carrying LNG would go by and through major cities.
Can you safely detonate rail cars full of flammable gas in a major population center?
As the U.S. grapples with a potential boom in moving fracked natural gas-turned-LNG across this country using long, heavy unit trains, it seems like a question the FRA should be examining. As I’ve documented over the years, we know what happened when federal regulators failed to do this before the crude-by-rail boom: We discovered “bomb trains.”
Federal Government Foot-Dragging Helps Oil Industry Delay Oil-by-Rail Rules
By Justin Mikulka, April 5, 2019 – 13:18
In an attempt to reduce the risk of fiery oil train accidents, the state of Washington is working to pass a bill that would limit the vapor pressure of oil on trains to below 9 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a measure of the volatility of flammable liquids and correlates to their likelihood of igniting. Higher vapor pressure means an oil is more volatile and more likely to ignite and burn when a train derails.
“If the federal government won’t act to protect public safety and adopt a safer nationwide standard, we will adopt our own,” state Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said of the bill he sponsored. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.”
Billig’s comments point to the federal government’s repeated failure to address the volatility of the oil moving by rail in America.
The Obama administration specifically left this issue out of the Department of Transportation’s 2015 regulations on moving oil by rail. In May 2017, half a dozen state attorneys general petitioned the federal government to regulate vapor pressure, which resulted in a proposed rule at the end of the Obama administration.
This oil train vapor pressure rule has gone nowhere in the Trump administration.
The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, North Dakota. Credit: U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration
Unsurprisingly, the state of North Dakota, where much of the highly volatile crude oil moved by rail in America is produced, opposes Washington state’s rule and is preparing to sue the state over it.
However, in a surprising moment of honesty, North Dakota’s top oil regulator didn’t bother pretending this opposition was about safety and instead revealed the real motivation: money.
The crude coming out of oil fields like North Dakota’s Bakken Shale is rich in natural gas liquids such as propane and butane, which make the oil more dangerous to transport but also more valuable. A value the industry and its allies in government aren’t willing to relinquish.
However, this isn’t really news. I wrote about a similar message from a North Dakota oil producer in 2014 when he too was opposing regulations to reduce the vapor pressure of Bakken oil before rail transport.
“The flammable characteristics of our product are actually a big piece of why this product is so valuable. That is why we can make these very valuable products like gasoline and jet fuel,” said Tony Lucero of oil producer Enerplus.
North Dakota Using Federal Government Delays to Avoid Regulation
Once trains carrying volatile oil from the Bakken Shale started blowing up on a regular basis in 2013, it became clear that the oil itself was part of the problem. Its high amounts of natural gas liquids make the oil more volatile and therefore more likely to catch fire and explode.
Which is true. But crude oil mixed with lots of propane and butane, such as the Bakken’s crude oil, does explode like that. And trains carrying oil from the Bakken continued to explode like that after derailing again and again.
The Obama administration argued that it couldn’t regulate oil vapor pressure because the issue was disputed scientifically and required more study. More than three years ago, I wrote that this was simply a delay tactic and that claiming the oil industry didn’t understand the fundamental science of crude oil was absurd:
“The oil industry and the government regulators in charge of regulating the industry don’t understand the basic science of oil. This is the core of the argument used to justify why they continue to run dangerous trains filled with Bakken oil through communities across North America. Do you believe them?
Despite the audacity of this position, it is being used to delay any new regulations and to support the idea that the mystery of why Bakken crude oil explodes must be studied for years before it would be possible to make any regulatory decisions.”
“The notion that this requires significant research and development is a bunch of BS,” Krishnamoorti wrote in an email response to Al Jazeera. “The science behind this has been revealed over 80 years ago, and developing a simple spreadsheet to calculate risk based on composition and vapor pressure is trivial. This can be done today.” [emphasis added]
The Departments of Energy and Transportation announced the start of a study that was supposed to resolve this issue — four years ago — in April of 2015. At the time, regulators referred to it as a two-year study.
In late 2016, at the Energy by Rail Conference in Arlington, Virginia, Suzanne Lemieux of the American Petroleum Institute gave a presentation on crude oil volatility and stabilization. While arguing once again that there wasn’t clear evidence that stabilizing oil reduces its volatility and risk, Lemieux noted that the federal study on the issue had been delayed. She said now it was expected to conclude sometime in 2018.
The explanation for the delay was that the researchers at Sandia National Laboratories were still collecting samples of the oil in late 2016 — almost a year and a half after the “two-year” study was announced.
And now, four years later, according to The Bismarck Tribune, North Dakota oil regulator Lynn Helms “encouraged [Washington] legislators to wait for the results of a Sandia National Laboratories study that was commissioned by the U.S.Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Energy.”
North Dakota’s top oil regulator is trying to convince legislators in Washington state that a proposal they’re considering to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude oil transported by rail is not supported by science.https://t.co/J0v3BNaiqh