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Warning issued about oil shipped from ND, Mont.

BILLINGS, Mont. — Following a string of explosive accidents, federal officials said Thursday that crude oil being shipped by rail from the Northern Plains across the U.S. and Canada may be more flammable than traditional forms of oil.

A safety alert issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation warns the public, emergency responders and shippers about the potential high volatility of crude from the Bakken oil patch. The sprawling oil shale reserve is fueling the surging industry in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, which is now the nation’s second-largest oil producer behind Texas.

Thursday’s announcement declares that the Bakken’s light, sweet crude oil may be different from traditional heavy crudes because it is prone to ignite at a lower temperature. Experts say lighter crudes, which contain more natural gas, have a much lower “flash point” — the temperature at which vapors given off by the oil can ignite.

The government’s warning comes after a huge explosion on Monday caused by a crude train derailment near Casselton, N.D. No one was hurt, but worries about toxic fumes prompted the evacuation of hundreds of residents from the small eastern North Dakota town.

The oil boom in the Bakken has reduced the nation’s reliance on imported oil and brought thousands of jobs to the region.

In July, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed. Another oil train from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Alabama in November, causing no deaths but releasing an estimated 749,000 gallons of oil from 26 tanker cars. By comparison, there was no fire when 10,000 gallons of oil that originated outside the Bakken region leaked after a Canadian Pacific Railway derailment in Minnesota last March.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Bakken oil is a high-quality crude with a lower flash point — that’s what makes it a desired commodity for all these coastal refineries,” said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a Bismarck-based group that represents hundreds of oil industry companies.

The amount of oil moving by rail in the U.S. has spiked since 2009, from just more than 10,000 tanker cars to a projected 400,000 cars in 2013.

The issue of volatility is particularly important for fire fighters and other emergency responders who have to deal with accidents like the one in Casselton, said Fred Millar, a rail safety consultant in Virginia. He said the dangers of crude have long been underappreciated, and need to be communicated to the hundreds of counties and cities across the U.S. that have seen a surge in crude oil trains.

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