Category Archives: North Dakota

New vapor pressure rule in North Dakota fails to account for additional explosion risks

Repost from Reuters
[Editor:  Reference below is to an important new Energy Department study on the volatility of Bakken crude.  – RS]

North Dakota’s new oil train safety checks seen missing risks

By Patrick Rucker, Mar 31, 2015 4:14pm EDT

WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) – New regulations to cap vapor pressure of North Dakota crude fail to account for how it behaves in transit, according to industry experts, raising doubts about whether the state’s much-anticipated rules will make oil train shipments safer.

High vapor pressure has been identified as a possible factor in the fireball explosions witnessed after oil train derailments in Illinois and West Virginia in recent weeks.

For over a year, federal officials have warned that crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale oilfields contains a cocktail of explosive gas – known in the industry as ‘light ends.’

The new rules, which take effect on April 1, aim to contain dangers by spot-checking the vapor pressure of crude before loading and capping it at 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi) – about normal atmospheric conditions.

The plan relies on a widely-used test for measuring pressure at the wellhead, but safety experts say gas levels can climb inside the nearly-full tankers, so the checks are a poor indicator of explosion risks for rail shipments.

It is “well-understood, basic physics” that crude oil will exert more pressure in a full container than in the test conditions North Dakota will use, said Dennis Sutton, executive director of the Crude Oil Quality Association, which studies how to safely handle fossil fuels.

Ametek Inc, a leading manufacturer of testing equipment, has detected vapor pressure climbing from about 9 psi to over 30 psi – more than twice the new limit – while an oil tank is filled to near-capacity.

About 70 percent of the roughly 1.2 million barrels of oil produced in North Dakota every day moves by rail to distant refineries and passes through hundreds of cities and towns along the way.

The state controls matter to those communities because there is no federal standard to curb explosive gases in oil trains.

North Dakota officials point out that the pressure limit is more stringent than the industry-accepted definition of “stable” crude oil. They also say that they lack jurisdiction over tank cars leaving the state and that the pressure tests are just one of the measures to make oil trains safer.

“We’re trying to achieve a set of operating practices that generates a safe, reliable crude oil,” Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has said. Helms has also said that test readings for near-full containers were less reliable.

However, given different testing and transport conditions, industry officials say the pressure threshold may need to be lowered to reduce the risks.

Limiting vapor pressure to 13.7 psi in transit would require an operator to bring it to “something well below that” at the loading point, Sutton said.

The uncertainty about regulatory reach and safety has spurred calls for the White House to develop national standards to control explosive gas pressure.

“Let me be really clear,” Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state told reporters last week. “They should set a standard on volatility.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent safety agency, has already encouraged a federal standard for “setting vapor pressure thresholds” for oil trains citing Canadian findings linking such pressure and the size of explosions in train accidents.

Meanwhile, a leading voice for the oil industry is lobbying Congress to resist federal vapor pressure benchmarks.

Last week, the American Petroleum Institute urged lawmakers to oppose “a national volatility standard” and pointed to an Energy Department study that the severity of an oil train mishap may have more to do with the circumstances of the crash than the volatility of the cargo.

That same report said much more study was needed to understand volatility of crude oil from the Bakken. (For a link to the study:

The oil industry has said that wringing ‘light ends’ out of Bakken crude may keep a share of valuable fuel from reaching refineries.

Reuters reported early this month that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx took his concerns about Bakken oil volatility to the White House last summer and sought advice on what to do about the danger of explosive gases.

The administration decided that rather than assert federal authority it would allow the North Dakota rules to take root, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

(Reporting By Patrick Rucker; Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder in North Dakota; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Bernard Orr)

Troubles in Boomtown: Low Prices Raise Alarm in North Dakota Oil Patch

Repost from ABC News (AP)

Low Prices Raise Alarm in North Dakota Oil Patch

Feb 2, 2015, By Matthew Brown, AP

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — High crude prices catapulted North Dakota into the top tier of the global oil market and doubled or tripled the size of once-sleepy towns that suddenly had to accommodate a small army of petroleum workers.

But now that those prices have tumbled, the shifting oil market threatens to put the industry and local governments on a collision course. Farming and ranching communities that committed to building homes, roads and schools for the swelling population are worried about how they will pay for those improvements as oil-related tax revenue evaporates.

“Everyone is asking the same question: ‘Holy cats, where do we go from here?'” said Dean Bangsund, an economist at North Dakota State University who has tried to help oil-rich McKenzie County gauge its needs, with an eye toward balancing growth against revenues. But none of his economic models were pessimistic enough to match how low oil prices dropped.

For now, the oil extraction goes on. Despite the price plummet, drilling remains profitable in the heart of the state’s Bakken oil patch, due to the sheer volume of crude flowing from so-called hot-spots.

And so the building continues in Watford City, a century-old town that once marked the end of the line for the Great Northern Railroad. Roughly 60 rigs are drilling in surrounding McKenzie County — 40 percent of the rigs statewide. New neighborhoods and retail centers creep ever deeper into former wheat fields.

“We’re making a new, 15,000-person city in the middle of a pasture,” said Brent Sanford, mayor of Watford, the county seat. “The question is if we get money put into the pot to do it.”

The county, which a decade ago had a population of about 5,000, has become a magnet for “man camps,” where newly arriving workers and their families live in trailers, RVs and just about any other structure that can stand up to North Dakota’s whipping winds.

The pace of growth over the past decade has been “hyperventilating,” slackening only slightly as oil prices have fallen, Sanford said. “You can’t catch a breath.”

With oil prices hovering near $100 a barrel for most of the past four years, ambitious plans were laid out to transform the city from a chaotic, sprawling crash pad for transient workers into a larger, more livable community. Sanford and other local leaders drafted a long wish list — more housing, more schools, better roads, a new water treatment plant and expanded law enforcement.

Developers eager to cash in started construction of thousands of apartments and single-family homes. A new high school and civic center began to take shape. A new bypass was built to the south of town to ease traffic jams.

Then oil prices began to drop, falling to roughly $50 a barrel now.

Daniel Kuo, vice president of a Chinese-backed real estate company that’s building a 2,000-unit housing complex on the outskirts of Watford, keeps a close eye on oil prices. He’s met with McKenzie County economic-development agents to soothe any worries that the company might pull back.

“You’re in too deep to let a price blip derail you,” Kuo concluded at the end of one meeting. He shared the optimism expressed by Sanford and many others in Watford that oil prices will stabilize and the boom will resume.

Leaders in the North Dakota Legislature have pledged to keep public-works improvements as a priority. Whether that’s sustainable depends on how long oil prices stay down. Oil and gas revenue forecasts for the state already have dropped $4 billion, reducing earlier projections by roughly half.

Watford and McKenzie County have joined other western North Dakota counties in seeking help from the state. Politicians and business leaders from the region flocked to the Capitol in Bismarck to press the Legislature for a larger stake of what’s left of the oil revenues.

Towns like Watford are worried about getting saddled with all the downsides of the boom — dangerously crowded roads, overtaxed utilities, jam-packed schools and unchecked growth — without the financial means to impose order.

“At this point, it’s like downtown Seattle,” said Aaron Pelton, who owns Outlaws’ Bar and Grill along Watford’s main thoroughfare. “If you can’t come to a small community and have a quality of life, what do you have?”

Like many oil towns, Watford has endured the boom-bust cycle before. Oil was first found in McKenzie County in 1952. Within a decade, hundreds of workers had moved on.

Another boom kicked off in 1976, with up to 100 wells a year being drilled until prices started plummeting four years later.

In the last decade, the industry refined the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology that allows drillers to pull oil out of rocky shale. The fracking rush has seen more than 11,000 wells drilled, and analysts predict a total of 50,000 to 60,000 before all the oil is gone. Industry observers expect the wells already in place to sustain last year’s production level of 1.1 million barrels a day at least through 2015.

Still, the sudden drop in prices caught most observers off guard and shook confidence in the boom.

“If I could tell everybody that we’d have $70 oil in 2016, we could breathe easier,” said Gene Veeder, director of the McKenzie County Job Development Authority.