Oil Rail Safety

  • A series of rail accidents involving trains carrying crude oil has focused attention on safety procedures and even the tank cars used in this service.
  • Another concern is the variable characteristics of the "light tight oil "now shipped by rail in large quantities. That isn't the result of "fracking", but of the oil's inherent chemistry.   

The growth of North American oil production from unconventional sources has resulted in a dramatic expansion in the volume of crude oil shipped by rail. Unfortunately, as crude oil rail traffic has increased, so have rail accidents involving crude oil, including the tragic explosion and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last July. That event and subsequent accidents have focused railroads, regulators and shippers on the need to improve the safety of oil-by-rail as quickly as possible.

In the immediate aftermath of Lac-Megantic, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order on procedures railroads must follow when transporting flammable and other hazardous materials. And on February 21, 2014 railroads reached a voluntary agreement with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) on additional steps, including reduced speed limits for oil trains passing through cities, increased track inspection, and upgraded response plans. These steps have the highest priority, because crude oil loaded in tank cars doesn't cause rail accidents. Every incident I've seen reported in the last year began with a derailment or similar event.

At the same time, the packaging and characteristics of the oil can affect the severity of an accident.  Investigators have focused on two specific issues in this regard, starting with the structural integrity of the tank cars carrying the oil. The vast majority of tank cars in this service are designated as DOT-111--essentially unpressurized and normally non-insulated cylinders on wheels. These cars routinely carry a variety of cargoes aside from crude oil, including gasoline and other petroleum products, ethanol, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide, and other chemicals and petrochemicals.

Their basic design goes back decades, and even the older DOT-111s incorporate learnings from earlier accidents. A growing proportion of the US fleet of around 37,000 DOT-111 tank cars in oil service consists of post-2011, upgraded cars that have been strengthened to resist punctures, but the majority is still made up of older, unreinforced models. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is studying whether to make upgrades mandatory, but some railroads and shippers aren't waiting. Last month Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, owned by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, announced it would buy up to 5,000 new, more accident-resistant tank cars.

Another issue that has received much attention since Lac-Megantic concerns the flammability of the light crude from shale formations like North Dakota's Bakken crude, which accounts for over 700,000 barrels per day of US crude-by-rail. The Wall Street Journal published the results of its own investigation, reporting that Bakken crude had a higher vapor pressure--a  measure of volatility and an indicator of flammability--than many other common crude oil types.

The Journal apparently based its findings on crude oil assay test data assembled by the Capline Pipeline.  Although a Reid Vapor Pressure of over 8 pounds per square inch (psi) for Bakken crude is higher than for typical US crudes, it's not unusual for oil as light as this. That's especially true where, due to lack of field infrastructure, only the co-produced natural gas is separated out, leaving all liquids in the crude oil stream.

What makes this situation unfamiliar in the US is that domestic production of oil as light as Bakken had nearly disappeared before the techniques of precision horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing were applied to the Bakken shale and similar "source rock" deposits. (Note: High vapor pressures are characteristic of the naturally-occurring mix of hydrocarbons in very light crudes, rather than a result of the "fracking" process.) Nor is the reported vapor pressure for Bakken or Eagle Ford crude higher than that of gasoline, a product that is federally certified for transportation in the same DOT-111 tank cars that carry crude oil.

The variability of the vapor pressure data that the Journal's reporters identified for Bakken crude may result from another unfamiliar feature of such "light tight oil". Crude produced from conventional reservoirs, which are much more porous than the Bakken shale, tends to be relatively homogeneous. However, because the Bakken and other shales are so much less porous, limiting diffusion within the source rock reservoir, the composition of their liquids can vary much more between wells.

In any case, vapor pressure isn't the preferred measure of fuel flammability. Actual rail cargo classifications are based on flash point and initial boiling point. These routine quality tests aren't included in Capline's publicly available data. PHMSA initiated "Operation Classification" to ensure that manifests and tank car placards for crude oil shipments accurately reflect the potential hazards of each cargo, based on such measurements. The agency has determined that it hasn't always been done consistently, and DOT issued another emergency order requiring shippers to test oil for proper classification.

As mentioned in an oil-by-rail webinar yesterday, hosted by Argus Media, assigning the proper classification to oil shipments may seem like a bureaucratic concern--it doesn't necessarily affect the tank car type chosen to transport the crude--but it can have a significant impact on operational factors such as routing and the notification of first responders along the route.

There's no quick and simple way to make the transportation of crude oil by rail as safe as hauling a dry bulk cargo like grain. Tank car fleets can't be replaced overnight, not just because of the cost involved, but due to limited manufacturing capacity. However, in the meantime significant improvements can be achieved through a combination of government attention and sustained industry initiatives. Since the new crude streams traveling by rail play a key role in increasing North America's energy security, this is in the interest of everyone involved--producers, shippers, railroads, and not least the communities through which this oil travels.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Photo Credit: Oil Transport Safety/shutterstock