North Dakota to Require Producers to Treat Crude Before Shipping

Repost from The Wall Street Journal

North Dakota to Require Producers to Treat Crude Before Shipping

Move Comes Amid Growing Safety Concerns About Oil-Laden Trains

By Chester Dawson, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 13, 2014


North Dakota plans unprecedented steps to ensure crude pumped from the state’s Bakken Shale oil producing region is safe enough to be loaded into railroad tank cars and sent across the country.

In the first major move by regulators to address the role of gaseous, volatile crude in railroad accidents, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates energy production in the state, said it would require Bakken Shale well operators to strip gases from crudes that show high vapor pressures.

“We believe the vast majority of our Bakken oil will fall well below the standard,” Lynn Helms, director of the state’s Department of Mineral Resources, said at a news conference.

The proposed state rule will require all operators to run crude oil through equipment that heats up the crude and forces out gases from the liquid. An estimated 15% of current producers without such equipment will have to submit quarterly test results showing their wells don’t exceed the state’s proposed 13.7 pounds a square inch vapor pressure limit, Mr. Helms said.

Those changes could make the new rules more costly for the state’s smaller producers. Jack Ekstrom, vice president of government affairs for Whiting Petroleum Corp. said the rules don’t appear to be “a major material cost” he said. “This is perhaps more of a concern to a marginal or smaller operator.”

A representative for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry lobbying group, criticized the proposed rules for “micromanaging the industry,” and said they could lead to unintended consequences such as increased burning of excess natural gas at well sites.

The proposal also would prohibit blending condensate or natural gas liquids back into crude and require rail loading terminals to inform state regulators of any oil received for shipment exceeding the vapor pressure limits, Mr. Helms said.

He said the new rules would cost industry, but not enough to make drilling Bakken oil uncompetitive.

Scott Skokos, an organizer with landowners’ group Dakota Resource Council, called the move by the regulator “a step in the right direction.”

The state’s decision follows months of officials’ playing down the possibility that Bakken crude was more volatile and could explode more readily than other North American crudes.

Several oil trains have derailed and exploded since 2013, spurring concern about the safety of growing numbers of oil-carrying trains delivering oil produced by the shale boom.

‘…a step in the right direction.’

—Scott Skokos, Dakota Resource Council

The Wall Street Journal reported in February that Bakken crude contained several times the amount of combustible gases as oil from elsewhere. Relying on an analysis of data collected at a pipeline in Louisiana, the Journal pointed out that oil from the Bakken Shale had a far higher vapor pressure, making it much more likely to emit combustible gases, than dozens of other crude oils.

The proposed rules specify how wells should treat the oil to ensure it is “in a stable state,” according to Mr. Helms.

Executives from the top oil companies working in the Bakken Shale told state regulators in a September hearing that their crude is safe to transport by train using existing treatment methods, opposing potentially costly requirements that they make the oil less volatile before shipping it.

But studies by the U.S. and Canada have indicated that Bakken crude is more volatile than other grades of oil. Industry-funded studies, including one commissioned by the NDPC, have said Bakken oil is no different than other types of light oil.

The state expects to issue final rules by December 11th.

Production of light shale oil through hydraulic fracturing has soared, accounting for most of the additional three million barrels a day of oil that the U.S. produces today compared with 2009. Much of that is shipped to refineries by railcars, especially crude produced from Bakken Shale due to the area’s few pipelines.