Derailed Rules: North Dakota's New Oil-by-Rail Standard Doesn’t Address Causes of Recent Catastrophes

On Dec. 9, North Dakota announced a new rule for rail shipments of highly volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale formation. The standard issued by the North Dakota Industrial Commission is intended to respond to spills, fires, and derailments that have injured and killed people and harmed the environment. Unfortunately, the new rule does not sufficiently protect against explosions, fails to address unsafe railcars, and does not impose penalties that would deter violators.

North Dakota produces and transports high volumes of crude oil extracted from the Bakken shale to refineries across the country. Bakken crude is especially profitable because it contains gases such as methane, ethane, propane, and butane. However, these substances are highly combustible. If the crude oil is not “conditioned” to filter out such substances before it is shipped, an accident can cause a massive explosion like the one that happened in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in 2013, when an oil train crashed, killing 47 people and destroying the town.

North Dakota’s new rule, effective April 1, 2015, is intended to improve safety by requiring operators to condition Bakken crude oil to filter out the volatile gases before shipment. Under the rule, oil cannot be shipped from the state unless it has a vapor pressure that does not exceed 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi). 

However, the rule does not set a stringent enough standard to reduce the danger of explosions. The train involved in the Lac-Megantic incident last year, for example, was carrying oil with a vapor pressure below 10 psi, significantly lower than North Dakota’s new standard.

Safety and operating standards for railcars are also missing. The railcars typically used to transport Bakken crude to refineries – known as "DOT-111" cars – were never designed to carry highly volatile oil and gas. Despite numerous incidents involving trains carrying Bakken crude oil, the agency failed to impose any safety requirements on the use of these risky railcars.

Moreover, the maximum penalty for violating the new rule is $12,500 per day. Not only is this penalty too low, but the commission charged with enforcing the rule has fewer than 40 inspectors available to scrutinize the more than 750,000 barrels of crude oil that are shipped by rail each day from North Dakota. That equals more than 18,000 barrels of oil per inspector per day.

North Dakota is not the only state where these concerns exist. The dangers of transporting crude oil by rail impact the entire nation, but neither states nor the federal government have taken enough action to address the considerable health, safety, and environmental risks involved. In fact, Reuters found that “[s]tates and the federal government have handed out tens of millions in public dollars to rail companies and government agencies to expand crude oil rail transportation across the country.”

Although the federal government has proposed design and safety standards that will phase out or retrofit old railcars, the Department of Transportation does not expect to finalize its rail safety rules until March 2015

North Dakota regulators should strengthen the state’s new vapor standard for crude oil and set higher penalties for violations of the rule. The state can also begin to address railcar safety by implementing rules that will ultimately exceed federal standards. Until such changes are made, transporting Bakken crude oil by rail will continue to threaten the residents and environment of North Dakota and every other state through which this oil travels.

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Excellent article, but"stabilization" is the process that is needed to render the Bakken oil trains non-explosive. Railway Age called it on September 26th... "The state’s (North Dakota) three-person Industrial Commission seems likely to adopt a set of industry-designed best practices. Simply put, North Dakotan crude will have to be lightly pressure-cooked to boil off a fraction of the volatile “light ends” before shipment." 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-liquefies nearly all of the petroleum gases for separate delivery to refiners. Stabilization is voluntarily and uniformly practiced in the Eagle Ford formation in Texas..."--Railway Age Ron Schalow Fargo, North Dakota The Coalition for Bakken Crude Oil Stabilization
excellent, chad hatten