Category Archives: Volatile gases

Latest ‘bomb train’ incident predictable

Repost from The Hawkeye, Burlington, Iowa

Latest ‘bomb train’ incident predictable

By Kathleen Sloan, May 11, 2015

BNSF Railway carried the Hess Corp.-owned rail car, which carried highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and appears to have followed the law.

President Barack Obama weighed and rejected using executive authority to curb the transport of this explosive crude oil, rich in butane and propane, because he decided North Dakota state law should be the controlling authority. But the law North Dakota passed in December and went into effect just last month, only requires less than 13.7 pounds-per-square-inch vapor pressure inside the tanker, despite explosions at lower pressures.

That’s almost 40 percent more than the average vapor pressure among the 63 tanker cars that exploded July 6, 2013, at Lac-Megantic, Quebec. That disaster killed 47 people, some of whom could not be found because they were vaporized, and is driving recent federal and state rail car regulations.

According to an Albany, N.Y., Times Union investigation, the average vapor pressure among 72 tanker cars in the Lac-Megantic train was 10 psi.

Hess Corp. tested the crude just before loading at 10.8 psi, according to Associated Press reporters Matthew Brown and Blake Nicholson, in their follow-up story about the derailment at Heimdal, N.D.

While federal regulations only require flash point and boiling point to be measured, North Dakota now requires vapor pressure be measured. But measuring and labeling the danger does not make transporting it safe.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s two divisions, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, are the regulating authorities overseeing railway transport of crude oil. Generally, the FRA is responsible for train car and rail safety, while the PHMSA inspects the proper testing of the oil. That determines the oil’s proper classification and its proper “packaging” in pressurized cars and their labeling.

Other PHMSA duties include checking shipping documents to see if the shipper has self-certified the procedures properly as well as employee safety and handling training.

The U.S. DOT initiated “Operation Safe Delivery” in August 2013, in reaction to the Lac-Megantic incident, although the Bakken oil boom dates to 2008.

A federal rule-making process also began in August 2013. Those rules went into effect last week.

PHMSA, as part of Operation Safe Delivery, took several samples of Bakken crude oil from rail-loading facilities, storage tanks and pipelines used to load rail cars. Several also were collected from cargo tanks.

The first set of samples were taken August through November 2013 and the second set February through May 2014.

The first set showed psi vapor pressure among a dozen samples ranging from 7.7 psi to 11.75 psi.

A second set of 88 samples showed vapor pressure ranging from 10.1 psi to 15.1, with the average at about 12 psi.

Only six of the 88 samples were at or exceeded North Dakota’s 13.7 psi. This means shippers are not required to treat most of the crude generated from the Bakken oil formation before loading it onto cars.

The “Operation Safe Delivery Update,” available on the PHMSA website, also gives test results for propane, sulphur, hydrogen sulfide, methane and butane content.

The conclusions in the Operations Safe Delivery Update, which was not dated, are:

“Bakken crude’s high volatility level — a relative measure of a specific material’s tendency to vaporize — is indicated by tests concluding that it is a ‘light’ crude oil with a high gas content, a low flash point, a low boiling point and high vapor pressure …

“Given Bakken crude oil’s volatility, there is an increased risk of a significant incident involving this material due to the significant volume that is transported, the routes and the extremely long distances it is moving by rail… These trains often travel over a thousand miles from the Bakken region to refinery locations along the coasts…”

And although the report states, “PHMSA and FRA plan to continue … to work with the regulated community to ensure the safe transportation of crude oil across the nation,” the new rules that went into effect last week did nothing about regulating vapor pressure.

Instead, the rules phase out weaker and older pressurized tanker cars, the DOT-111, by 2020, and phase in CPC-1232 cars.

So far, at least four derailments of CPC-1232 cars carrying Bakken oil have exploded:

    • March 5 in Galena, Ill.;
    • Feb. 1 in Mount Carbon, W.Va.;
    • Feb. 15 near Timmons, Ontario; and
    • Last year in Lynchburg, Va.

Experts in various news articles and public comment submitted during the federal rule-making stated the way to make transport safe is to refine the crude before shipping. That would involve building refineries near the extraction point, which experts pointed out would be expensive.

In a Sept. 26, 2014, story, Railway Age contributing editor David Thomas applauded North Dakota for “using state jurisdiction over natural resources to fill the vacuum created by the federal government’s abdication of its constitutional responsibility for rail safety and hazardous materials.”

But Thomas admitted the state law on crude treatment would reduce the danger only slightly.

“Simply put, North Dakotan crude will have to be lightly pressure-cooked to boil off a fraction of the volatile ‘light ends’ before shipment,” Thomas said. “This conditioning lowers the ignition temperature of crude oil — but not by much. It leaves in solution most of the culprit gases, including butane and propane. Even the industry itself says conditioning would not make Bakken crude meaningfully safer for transportation, though it would make the state’s crude more consistent from one well to another.”

“The only solution for safety is stabilization, which evaporates and re-liquifies nearly all of the petroleum gases for separate delivery to refiners,” Thomas said.

He points out owners and shippers in the Eagle Fork formation in Texas, voluntarily stabilize their crude before shipping. It’s more volatile than Bakken crude.

“So far, stabilized Eagle Fork crude has been transported by tank car as far away as Quebec City, without the fireballs that have plagued the shipment of unstabilized Bakken crude,” Thomas said. “The Texan gases are liquefied and piped underground to the state’s Gulf Coast petrochemical complex for processing and sale.”

Keeping the volatile gases in solution during shipping, while dangerous, is profitable.

Thomas said North Dakota has no nearby petrochemical plants, which “explains the oil industry’s collective decision not to extract the otherwise commercially valuable gases from North Dakota crude oil. Instead, most of the explosive gases remain dissolved in the unstabilized Bakken oil for extraction after delivery to distant refineries.”

The PHMSA, however, requires butane and propane be removed from the crude before it is injected into pipelines, Thomas said.

Comments to the federal rule-making pointed out Bakken oil is made more dangerous still by corrosive chemicals used in the fracking process. The crude is further treated with chemicals to make the molasses-like consistency easier to pump.

Severe corrosion to the inner surface of the tanker cars, manway covers, valves and fittings have been recorded in various incidents, commentators said.

The lack of federal regulations is not the only problem. Enforcement is minimal because there are only 56 inspectors, according to PHMSA spokesman Gordon Delcambre.

Ten of those have been assigned to the North Dakota Bakken oil formation region, he said.

In the PHMSA 2013 annual enforcement report, 151 cases were prosecuted and 312 civil penalty tickets were issued, resulting in $1.87 million in fines. The largest fine was $120,200.

The report did not mention what the hazardous material was in 173 of the 463 enforcement actions.

Only one enforcement action appeared to result from an inspection of “fuel oil” transport, which resulted in a $975 fine for incorrect “packaging” and failure to prove, through documents, employees had been given the required safety and hazardous material handling training.

According to BNSF Railway’s report to the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management, required by a U.S. DOT emergency order since May 2014, a range of zero-to-six trains carrying at least 1 million gallons (30,000 gallons per car or about 35 cars or more) pass through Burlington each week.

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    Energy, Transportation departments to study volatility of oil moved by rail

    Repost from McClatchyDC

    Energy, Transportation departments to study volatility of oil moved by rail

    By Curtis Tate, April 28, 2015
    The federal government will conduct a two-year study of how crude oil volatility affects the commodity’s behavior in train derailments, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a Senate panel Tuesday.The Energy Department will coordinate the study with the Department of Transportation, Moniz told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

    After a series of fiery train derailments, the Transportation Department concluded early last year that light, sweet crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region is more volatile than other kinds.

    But derailments involving ethanol and other types of crude oil have cast doubt on whether Bakken is likely to react more severely than other flammable liquids transported by rail.

    The petroleum industry has been citing its own studies and a recent report from the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratory to support its position that there’s no difference. But it’s clear that more crude oil is moving by rail, and an increase in serious accidents has come with that increased volume.

    Moniz said the Sandia report was “the most comprehensive literature survey in terms of properties of different oils” but showed the need for more research to determine their relevance in train derailments.

    The joint Energy-Transportation study would look at other kinds of crude moving by rail, such as light crude from west Texas and heavy crude from western Canada.

    Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Energy panel who requested the departments work together on a study, noted that there had been four derailments of oil trains in the U.S. and Canada since the beginning of the year.

    “A number of high-profile incidents have underscored major safety concerns,” she said.

    On April 1, North Dakota began setting vapor pressure limits for crude oil loaded in tank cars at no more than 13.7 pounds per square inch.

    But the crude oil tested in many serious derailments had a lower vapor pressure than the new standard…..  [MORE]

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      Federal, state and local officials gather in Davis California to discuss oil train safety legislation

      Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
      [Editor:  Thanks to Rep. Garamendi for his sponsorship of HR1679 to require Bakken oil stabilization before it is loaded onto oil trains.  But you can add Garamendi’s name to the long list of officials who show little interest in stopping bomb trains, who operate under the illusion that “safer” is ok.  Quote: “He added that the push isn’t to stop transportation of oil by rail, but to make it safer….”  – RS]

      Crude oil-by-rail safety focus of proposed bill

      By Melissa Murphy, 04/08/15, 10:05 PM PDT
      U.S. Congressman John Garamendi, D-Solano, pauses as a freight train passes during a press conference at the Davis Amtrak Depot on Wednesday to highlight the need for state and federal action to improve the safety of crude oil-by-rail transports. Joel Rosenbaum — The Reporter
      Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson expresses his concerns about rail safety as he participates in a press conference on the issue Wednesday in Davis. Joel Rosenbaum — The Reporter

      Transportation of crude oil by rail was a hot topic Wednesday as federal, state and local government officials gathered at the train depot in the city of Davis.

      Congressman John Garamendi, D-Solano, addressed media during a press conference about his legislation, H.R. 1679, which would prohibit the transport of crude-by-rail unless authorities have reduced the volatile gases in the oil prior to transportation.

      Specifically, maximum Reid vapor pressure of 9.5 psi, the maximum volatility permitted by the New York Mercantile Exchange for crude oil futures contracts.

      “Further analysis and debate is warranted, and H.R. 1679 is intended to move debate forward and stress the urgency of action before more lives are needlessly lost,” Garamendi said. “It doesn’t have to be explosive.”

      He added that the push isn’t to stop transportation of oil by rail, but to make it safer and that the federal government needs to get its “train in gear” to adopt regulations.

      Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said even though the issue is complicated, they’re working on a comprehensive approach.

      She explained that there has been a 4,000 percent increase in the amount of crude by rail. It continues to be transported by rail, pipeline and truck.

      While it will take a long time to create and pass new regulations and standards, interim steps have been taken, including additional emergency regulations, speed reductions, increased inspections and more emergency equipment.

      “We’ll continue to do more,” she said.

      Standing next to photos of two fiery oil car train explosion, one that occurred as recently as February in West Virginia, Davis Mayor Dan Wolk said the trains go through the heart of the city, and there is a high risk if crude-by-rail starts moving through the corridor.

      “It could have catastrophic effects in our community,” he said. “Garamendi’s legislation is in perfect alignment with city objectives. Safety is the priority.”

      Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson agreed and added that the legislation needs to be passed as soon as possible.

      Other steps have been taken by the California Office of Emergency Services.

      Eric Lamoureux, inland regional administrator for OES, said six hazardous materials vehicles stand ready to respond throughout the state and within the next few months local exercises will test the systems and procedures in place.

      Lamoureaux also explained that explosions are a concern, but there also is a risk to water supply. He shared that a derailment in November sent eight train cars and loads of corn into Feather River Canyon near Lake Oroville.

      He added that it could have been a bigger issue if it was crude oil.

      Garamendi also explained that the process of removing volatile gases isn’t new, but a regular standard for refineries in Texas.

      Meanwhile, the city of Benicia is considering an application that would allow Valero Refinery to receive and process more crude oil delivered by rail. The proposed crude by rail project would be a third means to deliver crude oil. So far, Valero receives the crude oil by marine deliveries and pipeline.

      According to the city of Benicia website, the city has determined that sections of the Draft Environmental Impact Report, when it comes to the Valero project, will need to be updated and recirculated. The anticipated release of the Recirculated Draft EIR for public comment is June 30. The Recirculated Draft EIR will have a 45-day comment period. After the comment period on the Recirculated DEIR closes, the city will complete the Final EIR which will include responses to all comments on the original Draft EIR and the Recirculated Draft EIR.

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        Why more pipelines won’t solve the problem of oil-train explosions

        Repost from Grist

        Why more pipelines won’t solve the problem of oil-train explosions

        By Ben Adler on 6 Apr 2015
        Shutterstock | Shutterstock
        In the last few years, the grassroots environmental movement has energetically opposed constructing big new oil pipelines in North America. Their opposition is understandable, since, on a global level, fossil fuel infrastructure encourages fossil fuel consumption, contributing to climate change, and, on a local level, oil pipelines leak and explode. But conservatives have been delighted to argue that greens are endangering the public and being short-sighted. Oil that comes out of the ground has to get to market somehow, and currently a huge amount of it is being shipped on freight trains. The result? An epidemic of oil train derailments, causing spills and even deadly explosions.

        Is it fair to blame activists for this? Should climate hawks throw in the towel and accept Keystone XL as the lesser evil?

        No and no — and I’ll explain two key reasons why.

        First: Much of the oil criss-crossing the U.S. on trains is coming from North Dakota and traveling out along east/west routes where there aren’t even any proposals for big new pipelines. You can’t blame activists for that. Keystone would connect the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, but wouldn’t do anything to help move North Dakota’s fracked bounty. Right now rail is the main option for that. “Keystone XL would enable tar-sands expansion projects, but is unlikely to reduce crude-by-rail,” says Anthony Swift, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. But don’t just take his word for it. Oil-loving, Keystone-supporting North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) makes the same point: “I am not someone who has ever said that the Keystone pipeline will take crude off the rails. It won’t,” Heitkamp said in November. “Our markets are east and west and it would be extraordinarily difficult to build pipelines east and west.”

        Second: Climate activists are supporting something that actually would go a long way toward solving the problem of dangerous oil trains: strict regulation of those trains.

        In the long term, of course, climate hawks want to keep the oil in the soil, and they are pushing for structural changes — like an end to federal leases for oil drilling offshore and on federal land — that would reduce the amount of oil we produce in the U.S. But in the short term, they’re not just being unrealistic and saying “no” to all oil transport — they’re pushing to make that transport safer.

        The Department of Transportation has the authority to impose rules on oil trains’ design and speed, which would reduce the risk of them leaking and exploding when they derail or crash. DOT made an initial proposal in July of last year and is expected to finalize it in May. Green groups have been disappointed by the proposal, though — both the weakness of the rules and the slowness of the timetable. If all goes according to plan, the rules would be implemented later this year, but their requirements would still take years to phase in.

        Fortunately there’s now a stronger proposal that climate hawks can get behind: a new Senate bill that would impose stiffer requirements than those being proposed by the Obama administration. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act late last month, along with three Democratic cosponsors: Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Patty Murray (Wash.), and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.). It got immediate backing from big green groups.

        Here are four critical things that need to be done to make oil trains safer, three of which are included in Cantwell’s bill:

        1. Stop the transport of oil in an old model of rail car, called the DOT-111, that was designed back in the ‘60s. DOT-111s “have a number of manufacturing defects that make them much more likely to rupture in a derailment,” says Swift. So environmentalists want to get 111s off the rails immediately. That’s exactly what Cantwell’s Senate bill would do. DOT, in contrast, proposes to delay that transition. “DOT only slowly phases out 111s by 2017 and the rest of fleet by 2020, and we think the industry is pushing to move the phaseout to 2025,” says Devorah Ancel, an attorney at the Sierra Club. “It’s very concerning.”
        2. Require steel jackets around vulnerable rail cars that carry oil. DOT would require freight companies to transition to a newer, sturdier model of car called the CPC-1232, but even those cars aren’t sturdy enough — they have already been involved some fiery accidents, including one in West Virginia in February and one in Illinois in March. Cantwell’s bill would go further, requiring CPC-1232s to be jacketed, and then calling for “new tank car design standards that include 9/16th inch shells, thermal protection, pressure relief valves and electronically-controlled pneumatic brakes.”
        3. Clamp down on the amount of flammable gases permitted in the oil on train cars. Oil fracked in North Dakota’s Bakken shale carries more volatile gases with it than your average crude, making explosions more common. DOT’s proposed rules do nothing to curb that. Cantwell et al would limit the volatility of the oil being transported and increase fines for violations.
        4. Reduce train speeds. Currently, the speed limit for crude-by-rail is 50 mph, and that’s voluntary. DOT would make a speed limit mandatory, but would only lower it to 40 mph, and even that may only apply in “high threat urban areas” with more than 100,000 people. “The question of speed limits is crucial,” says Swift. “You need to dramatically reduce the speed at which these trains are moving.” Swift notes that CPC-1232s may puncture when going above 18 mph, but environmental groups stop short of explicitly calling for that speed limit. NRDC says, “Crude oil unit trains must adhere to speed limits that significantly reduce the possibility of an explosion in the event of a derailment.” That would presumably fall somewhere between 18 mph and 40 mph. Stricter speed limits is the one major needed reform that the Senate bill doesn’t address.

        Cantwell’s bill also doesn’t compensate communities when accidents happen (the DOT proposal doesn’t either). But the bill’s sponsors intend to introduce future legislation to establish an oil spill liability trust fund paid for by fees from the companies moving crude oil. “Taxpayers should not be on the hook to bail out communities after a disaster caused by private companies,” said Cantwell.

        It’s hard to imagine this bill passing both houses of an intensely pro-business, pro–fossil fuel Republican Congress. But Senate Democrats hope that by raising the issue they can build public awareness and support for stronger rules.

        The bill could put pressure on the Obama administration to adopt the strongest possible version of its proposal. During the public comment period on DOT’s draft rules, the oil and rail industries argued for the weakest rules under consideration. Now the plans are being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which tends to scale rules back in order to reduce their cost to business. Representatives from the oil and rail industries have been meeting with OMB to lobby for weaker rules.

        Late last month, Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), who will take over as Senate Democratic leader after Harry Reid (Nev.) retires next year, announced that he and six colleagues — including Baldwin and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) — had sent a letter to OMB Director Shaun Donovan asking him to ensure “the rule is strong and comprehensive and that it is finalized as quickly as possible.” If nothing else, Schumer’s push and Cantwell’s bill will set up a countervailing force to the industry voices that the Obama administration is listening to.

        The administration should protect public safety without being pushed by fellow Democrats — in this case, it has the power to do so without congressional approval. There is definitely a clear alternative to the false choice between pipelines and dangerous oil trains.

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