Opinion: Bakken Oil Trains Unsafe at any Speed due to Volatile Oil

Opinion
Opinion: Bakken Oil Trains Unsafe at any Speed due to Volatile Oil
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On December 22, 2020, a train carrying over 100 tank cars of Bakken oil derailed and caught fire in the small Washington town of Custer. This accident highlights how the regulatory system has failed to protect the public and — in the case of the last four years of the Trump administration — actively worked to remove regulations which then put the public at greater risk.

The accident — which happened despite the train traveling at the slow speed of 7 miles per hour — highlights, once again, that Bakken oil-by-rail is unsafe under any circumstance. Until regulators address the issue of the volatile oil being moved by rail — from both the Bakken and Canada — the public will remain at risk. This is because, while other safety measures can help stop a crude oil spill from becoming an environmental mess, not all oil is equal and some types are much, much more likely to ignite than others — a fact the industry is aware of but ignores. 

Ever since a train of Bakken oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, the oil and rail industries have worked with regulators and politicians to pretend safety issues with these dangerous trains were being addressed all while working hard to avoid addressing the one factor that is putting the public at great risk: the volatility of the crude oil mixtures being moved by rail.

In those early days after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, as the public began to learn about the bomb train issues, even the industry lobbyists were telling the truth, before the industry started a disinformation campaign to downplay the risks.

“Liquid crude oil is extremely difficult to ignite,” Brian Straessle, spokesperson for industry-leading lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute, said in 2013.

Then in early 2014, after three train derailments involving Bakken crude oil all resulted in large fires with explosions, the Wall Street Journal published an article that included one of the last honest things anyone from the oil or rail industry has said about the dangerous oil being moved in trains. “Crude oil doesn’t explode like that,” explained Matthew Goitia, chief executive at Peaker Energy Group LLC.

Goitia was correct and was explaining a fact that anyone in the oil industry knew quite well.

However, since that comment, the oil industry — with the help of the rail industry, politicians, and lobbyists — have led a misinformation campaign against the known science of crude oil to provide cover for the industry to keep moving the dangerous Bakken and Canadian oil by rail.

The campaign sought to argue that if an accident occured, all oil-by-rail operations had a risk of fire and explosion — because of the fact that it was being transported by rail, not because of the type of oil inside the car — thereby ignoring that certain crudes were more dangerous than others.

Bakken oil, however, ignites very easily and has exploded in multiple train derailments because it isn’t like regular crude oil. What makes this oil different is the fact that it includes high amounts of natural gas liquids (e.g. propane, butane) which make the oil much more volatile and more likely to ignite than other types of crude oil.

As DeSmog has documented since 2014, this problem can be solved with simple existing process known as stabilization, a proven method for removing the natural gas liquids from crude oil that makes the oil much less volatile and “stable” — which lowers the risk of the oil igniting in accidents. But the oil industry has refused to employ this method and regulators have refused to require it be done. 

The majority of crude oil moved by rail in the U.S. is Bakken oil. In the fourth quarter of 2020, over 85 percent of the crude oil being transported in Washington state was from the Bakken region, with the remaining amounts being from Canada. 

And in 2019, Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, made it clear that to remove the volatile elements of the Bakken crude oil mixture would “devalue the crude oil immensely.” 

The reality is that in this case, protecting the public would cut into oil industry profits which is why efforts to make the crude less explosive have not been made. Until regulations require oil to be made less volatile by stabilization, there is nothing that can be done to make the Bakken oil trains safe. After the latest accident in Washington, Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA) tweeted: “Clearly there may be more work to do.”

The accident in Custer clearly highlights that the work which must be done to remove the risk of the Bakken bomb trains it to address the oil volatility. Nothing else — not speed limits, modern brakes, safer tank cars — can protect the public from this risk.

The science is clear on this. State regulators and attorneys general have all made efforts to address the issue. And yet, the oil industry has successfully fought these efforts and that is why the public continues to be at risk.

Washington State Overruled by Trump Administration

With federal regulators failing to protect the public from the volatile Bakken oil, in 2019 Washington state politicians took matters into their own hands and passed regulations to do the only thing that could protect the public (other than banning crude oil transport by rail): limit the volatility of the oil so that it wouldn’t be so easily ignited in derailments.

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 in 2019. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.

But, in 2020, federal regulators overruled Washington state’s attempt to protect the public, stating that safety could not be used as a “pretext for inhibiting market growth.”

A popular argument of the oil industry has been that there is no need to regulate the volatility of oil for rail transport because, according to the industry, rail accidents create so much kinentic energy in derailments when the moving trains quickly grind to a stop, that any oil will ignite due to the heat created by the energy of the derailment. This acceptance of fires and explosions being inevitable is used as an argument for the continued widespread transportation of rail without new regulations and is indicative of the complete inadequacy of the current regulatory system.

As has been the case with repealing regulations for modern safe brakes on oil trains, the industry got help from regulators and Congress to back up this false argument. But we know the argument is invalid because the oil industry told us that crude oil doesn’t explode and is “extremely difficult to ignite.”

In 2015, I wrote about how the Department of Energy was delaying regulation of crude oil volatility by claiming the matter deserved further study. After studying the risks of Bakken crude oil for six years, a Department of Energy report completed for Congress in April 2020 (nearly eight years after the deadly accident in Lac-Megantic) used the argument that all crude oil would pose a similar risk in train derailments, while refusing to look at the one variable that is critical to this discussion: ignitability of the oil.

“It was also concluded from the literature survey that the vast majority of train accidents provide enough kinetic energy to result in ignition from sparks or hot fragments from damaged railcars regardless of the crude oil type; thus, ignitability was not included within these research efforts.”

Instead of studying whether Bakken oil is more ignitable due to its higher volatility because of the high percentage of natural gas liquids, the federal government decided not to even look at this as a risk factor — not based on the science of oil but simply because rail accidents are likely to produce sparks, and that argument that these sparks would ignite any type of oil being transported. Not looking at whether different crude oils are more likely to ignite simply because trains derailments produce sparks (an ignition source) doesn’t make any sense — unless you are trying to mislead the public and provide cover for regulators. 

Once ignitiability has been eliminated from the research it is easy to conclude that the vapor pressure of crude oil (a measure of volatility) doesn’t need to be regulated. 

The reason these trains are dangerous is that the Bakken oil ignites so easily. And that is the one factor the federal government refused to research despite statements from the American Petroleum Institute that “Liquid crude oil is extremely difficult to ignite.”  

If this wasn’t an intentional attempt to mislead, the incompetence would be beyond alarming. 

Unsafe at Any Speed 

Another aspect of the Custer train derailment which provides more evidence that there is nothing that can be done to make these trains safe other than making the oil less volatile has to do with the speed the train was moving. 

The Custer train was moving at 7 miles per hour on a flat straight track and was using the DOT-117 new tank cars that regulators have claimed protect the public from tanks rupturing in derailments but which have failed in every major derailment to-date. Other than a stopped train, this is one of the lowest risk scenarios for a Bakken oil train. And yet, the train still derailed, the tank cars ruptured, the oil ignited, and the town had to be evacuated.

The only way to remove this risk is to do what the state of Washington did and regulate the volatility of the oil. The oil trains would still create toxic oil spills due to the inadquate regulations for tank cars but the risk of fire would be greatly reduced. Until that happens, no other regulation can protect the public from the Bakken (and Canadian) oil trains.

These are the real world examples that highlight the risk. What happened in Custer is completely understandable based on the known science. Which is why the federal government, if it was avoiding regulation, had to refuse to address the ignitability of the Bakken oil; any legitimate scientific review of the ignitability of crude oils would show that volatile oils like Bakken pose a much greater risk than traditional crude oils of igniting and exploding.

You Can’t Regulate What You Refuse to Know

Unfortunately, the regulatory system in America is designed for this type of intentional ignorance to provide cover for industry profits. The oil industry makes claims that challenge known science, its partners in Congress call for studies to investigate these claims, the studies then don’t look at the actual issue and are used as justification for the oil industry’s false claims — and to avoid regulation.

In 2018, The Atlantic wrote an article on oil volatility that outlines many of these problems and highlights the issue of regulators appearing to intentionally want to remain ignorant about the risks.

In order for the regulators to understand the risks for different oil and gas products, they really need the assays, but they have been reluctant because of the power of the oil industry,” Stanford’s Jonathan Koomey told The Atlantic. “If the regulators had the assays and the right people with the right knowledge, they could make more sensible judgments about shipments. But they don’t have it and they don’t ask for it.”

According to the website for Equinor, the third largest oil trader in the world, assays detail “the chemical evaluation of crude oil feedstocks by petroleum testing laboratories.” It is notable that oil traders have this information but regulators reportedly do not. 

When the studies the regulators use to make policy intentionally avoid looking at the actual issues, regulators can use this supposed ignorance as justification for not regulating. Not asking for information is one way to avoid the issue and create plausible deniability. 

In 2015, leading rail industry publication Railway Age published an editorial questioning the Department of Energy on why it needed to study the issue of crude oil volatility when everyone already knew the answers.

There was no response from the Department of Energy to our request for more information about the study, specifically why it needs two more years to figure out what by now should be obvious to the dullest high school chemistry student.”

That was over five years ago. What was so obvious to Railway Age in 2015?  

As the editorial wrote: “…it is becoming self-evident to many outside of the oil business that the nuisance of exploding cargo will not be solved before crude is de-weaponized at the well site by cooking off contaminating volatile gases.”

This is another way to say that the oil must be stabilzed and the natural gas liquid removed to solve the “nuisance of exploding cargo.” 

Since then, we’ve had regulators overrule Washinton’s attempt to regulate the oil volatility and also abandon attempts at implementing national regulations to do the same — and the nuisance of exploding cargo remains. 

The Seattle Times published an editorial about the Custer derailment in December which posed an excellent question:

“While last week’s accident had a relatively good outcome, it happened in ideal circumstances and there was still a fire. What if the train was moving faster in warm weather and derailed in a denser area, such as downtown Seattle?”

Unfortunately the op-ed does not address the primary issue that matters in oil-by-rail safety: oil volatility.

If the oil is stabilized it isn’t going to ignite and explode. So what would happen if a train of stabilized oil derailed in a populated area? It would be a mess. The tank cars would rupture since they are inadequate. The derailment would be bigger than necessary because the brakes on the train are inadequate. It would be messy and dangerous because it would be a major oil spill but there wouldn’t be fires and explosions because — as the oil industry has assured us — crude oil is very hard to ignite and it doesn’t explode.

Main image: Oil train derailment in Custer, Washington.    Credit: Whatcom County Sheriff 

Opinion: Bakken Oil Trains Unsafe at any Speed due to Volatile Oil
Justin Mikulka is a freelance investigative journalist. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

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