Category Archives: Vapor pressure

The federal government’s repeated failure to address the volatility of the oil moving by rail in America

Repost from DeSmog

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.

As DeSmog reported in 2016, the American Petroleum Institute has said that even having these discussions about regulating oil vapor pressure is “dangerous.”

Exploding oil train fireball in Casselton, North Dakota
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.

Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, said that taking the steps to stabilize the crude oil (remove its volatile natural gas liquids) and achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9 psi would “devalue the crude oil immensely.”

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.

After the deadly oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people, there was confusion about the associated explosions and intense fires that burned for days. As the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, an oil executive said, “Crude oil doesn’t explode like that.”

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.


Rainy Day Train Message/Oil Train Protesters. Credit: Joe BruskyCC BYNC 2.0

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.”

Meanwhile, as I’ve also been writing for years, if you ask an oil expert like Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Houston, you learn that couldn’t be further from the truth.

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.”

Four years later. The federal government is unable to complete a two-year study in four years on a question which oil experts already know the answer to.

A very effective delay tactic that means no one can “devalue” the oil implicated in multiple explosions and 47 deaths.

Main image: Screen shot of McClatchy article combined with Justin Mikulka’s oil train photo and text. Credit: Justin Mikulka 

Share...

    California Attorney General Calls on Trump to Close Loophole that Exposes Communities to “Bomb Trains”

    Press Release from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
    [Editor:  See also KQED California Report, “AG Becerra Wants Trump Administration to Make Crude-Carrying ‘Bomb Trains’ Safer”  Also, see the NRDC blog on this story.   And … sadly … see a similar story from December, 2015.  – RS]

    Attorney General Becerra Calls on Trump to Close Loophole that Exposes Vulnerable California Communities to “Bomb Trains”

    Thursday, May 25, 2017
    Contact: (415) 703-5837, agpressoffice@doj.ca.gov
    • Without Action, California Could Be Exposed To Freight Trains Carrying Highly Flammable, Highly Explosive Crude Oil
    • San Bernardino-Riverside And San Luis Obispo Among Regions Bearing Greatest Potential Risks

    SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is urging the Trump Administration to immediately close a loophole to prevent highly flammable, highly explosive crude oil from being shipped by freight rail via so-called “bomb trains” through communities in California, including the highly populated San Bernardino-Riverside and San Luis Obispo regions. High hazard areas for derailments would exist along every freight rail route in California. Many of these areas are also adjacent to California’s most sensitive ecological areas.

    “Millions of Californians live, work, and attend school within the vicinity of railroad train tracks,” said Attorney General Becerra. “A derailment or explosion in California could put countless lives at risk and cause major damage to our land and waterways. This risk is simply unacceptable. I urge the Trump Administration to act immediately.”

    So-called “bomb trains” are responsible for several catastrophic rail accidents in recent years, including the 2013 explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

    In comments submitted to federal regulators, Attorney General Becerra called for immediate action that would require all crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a key driver of the oil’s explosiveness and flammability. Attorney General Becerra joined attorneys general from Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New York and Washington in calling for this requirement.

    The comments were filed in response to an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

    Earlier this month, as part of his efforts to protect vulnerable California communities, Attorney General Becerra filed a lawsuit in federal court that seeks to protect state residents from dangerous pollution that results from coal mining. Coal mined on public lands is transported by train through California and exported from ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles, Richmond and Stockton — areas next to several vulnerable communities. The transport of coal in open-top rail cars, as well as its storage and handling at export terminals, emits dangerous pollution. These emissions can result in a wide variety of serious health problems, including asthma, bronchitis, cardio-vascular diseases and cancer.

    # # #

    Share...

      10 Senators call for crude oil vapor limits before oil train transport

      Repost from the Albany Times-Union
      [Editor: for a copy of the letter, see the announcement on Sen. Schumer’s website.  California Senators Feinstein and Boxer also signed in the letter.  – RS]

      Schumer adds voice to call for crude oil safety boost

      Federal officials urged to limit vapor pressure before oil transport
      By Brian Nearing Published 7:38 pm, Wednesday, June 29, 2016
      Tank cars head to the siding in the Port of Albany over the port entrance road Wednesday June 29, 2016 in Albany, N.Y.  (Skip Dickstein/Times Union) Photo: SKIP DICKSTEIN
      Tank cars head to the siding in the Port of Albany over the port entrance road Wednesday June 29, 2016 in Albany, N.Y. (Skip Dickstein/Times Union) Photo: SKIP DICKSTEIN

      U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer was among nine Democratic senators on Wednesday who urged federal officials to use emergency powers to limit potential flammability of crude oil transported nationwide every day by massive tanker trains.

      The group wrote U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging he reduce limits on acceptable crude oil vapor pressure, which indicates how easily oil can ignite during a train derailment.

      Train derailments of tankers carrying crude oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota have caused several explosions in the U.S., including one this month in Oregon. “The oil companies are making tons of profits, they can afford this. Safety has to come first,” Schumer said during a call with reporters.

      Also signing the letter to Foxx were Sens. Bernie Sanders, who is campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president; Patrick Leahy, also of Vermont; Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both of Washington state; Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; Jeff Merkley and Ronald Wyden, both of Oregon; and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California.  (continued)

      Share...

        New York AG calls on PHMSA to close crude-by-rail safety loophole

        Repost from Progressive Railroading
        [Editor:  See also New York Wants Oil Companies to Treat Oil Shipped on Trains – Wall Street Journal, and NYS attorney general pushes federal limit on crude oil train explosion risk – Albany Times Union.  – RS]

        New York AG calls on PHMSA to close crude-by-rail safety loophole

        December 4, 2015

        New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has called on the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to limit the vapor pressure of crude oil shipped by rail.

        In a petition for rulemaking, Schneiderman asked the agency to require all crude transported by rail in the United States to achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a key driver of the oil’s explosiveness and flammability, according to a press release issued by Schneiderman’s office.

        In his petition, the attorney general argues that reducing crude oil vapor pressures is practical and necessary for minimizing the risk and severity of accidents involving tank cars.

        Crude oils with the highest vapor pressures — including crude produced from the Bakken Shale formations in North Dakota — have the highest concentrations of propane, butane, ethane and other highly volatile gases, Schneiderman noted. 

        While the vapor pressure of crude involved in train accidents is often undisclosed, the vapor pressure in such accidents in which the levels were disclosed have exceeded 9 psi, including the crude train accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that caused 47 fatalities.

        “Recent catastrophic rail accidents send a clear warning that we need to do whatever we can to reduce the dangers that crude oil shipments pose to communities across New York State,” Schneiderman said in a prepared statement. “In New York, trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil routinely travel through our cities and towns without any limit on its explosiveness or flammability — which makes crude oil more likely to catch fire and explode in train accidents. … The federal government needs to close this extremely dangerous loophole, and ensure that residents of the communities in harm’s way of oil trains receive the greatest possible protection.”

        Share...