North Dakota regulators could lessen the danger of crude-oil explosions that have killed bystanders and damaged property. Instead, the state’s Industrial Commission is likely to allow oil producers to continue shipping dangerous crude across North America when a commonly used fix is possible.
The safety of millions of Americans who live, work or play within a mile of tracks where Bakken oil trains run are in the hands of three mortal men.
Unfortunately, these men make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission.
“It’s a little like the Wild West up in the Bakken, where everybody gets to do what they want to do,” says Myron Goforth, president of Dew Point Control LLC, in Sugarland, Texas. “In the Eagle Ford (Texas shale play), you’ve got to play by the rules, which forces the oil companies to treat it (crude) differently.”
Not in North Dakota, where oil regulators are finally feeling pressure to require the Bakken oil producers to render the trains non-explosive. The push comes six years after the first massive Bakken oil train explosion outside of Luther, Oklahoma, and seven months since the last, in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, where a quirk of physics turned the exploding tanker cars towards the river, sparing many people and buildings.
Making the trains safer has been possible all along. It seems that politicians in some states don’t want their citizens or towns incinerated, nor do they wish to watch property values drop in the meantime.
Will the North Dakota Industrial Commission act?
Spoiler alert: No.
The Bakken crude needs to be “stabilized,” to remove all explosive “natural gas liquids” such as ethane, propane and butane. That requires billions of dollars in additional equipment and infrastructure, and the oil companies don’t want to pay for it.
Stabilization is a standard practice in many other parts of the United States. And it’s a required part of preparing crude for shipment via pipelines. The explosion risk North Dakota’s lack of regulation imposes on railroad communities all over North America is completely unnecessary. And requiring stabilization would a further boost to the state’s economy. But that’s not enough for the commission.
Instead, the commission is going to sell a different process called “conditioning,” which the oil companies have been doing all along. And conditioning doesn’t do the job, unless you think that job should include towering fireballs, mushroom clouds, charred buildings and graves.
Railway Age explains the difference well:
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.
And, right on cue, on November 13 North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms presented the North Dakota Industrial Commission with proposed new standards (there never were any old standards) to “condition” the Bakken crude, supposedly for the purpose of making the Bakken oil trains non-explosive. Or somewhat less explosive, kinda not explosive, or to get the height of the fireballs down into double digits… I don’t know.
But, if the goal is to render the Bakken oil trains NON-explosive, the proposal to “condition” the crude isn’t going to cut it.
I repeat, the producers have always “conditioned” the crude, but, evidently, now they’re going to be “forced” by the North Dakota Industrial Commission to turn the knob a few notches to the right, and everything will be peachy.
If it was that simple, perhaps they should have done that before dozens of people got killed – maybe sometime shortly after the first Bakken oil train derailed and blew sky high in 2008.
Commission Chair and North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has so much faith in “conditioning” that his own emergency exercise of a Bakken oil train derailment and explosion estimated 60 casualties in Bismarck or Fargo, both medium-sized cities in North Dakota. One can only guess the number of deaths, if a Bakken train were to jump the rails in Minneapolis or Chicago.
Furthermore, taxpayers are footing the bill for billions to outfit, equip and train firefighters and emergency personnel to deal with a Bakken oil derailment and explosion. Quebec is on the hook for the $2.7 billion disaster in Lac-Megantic, a village of 6,000. That explosion required responses from “more than 1,000 firefighters from 80 different municipalities in Quebec and from six counties in the state of Maine,” according to a report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
How much will it cost your community if tragedy strikes? Will North Dakota pay?
But, there is a bright side. When the next, or the next, or the next Bakken oil train disaster kills more people and decimates a section of Albany or Sacramento or Missoula or Perham, North Dakota can quit worrying about how to spend all of the money piling up in the Bank of North Dakota from oil production revenues. It will be gone to the survivors and a long list of stakeholders.
The loss will be due to willful negligence, disinterest or incompetence on the part of three men.
Ron Schalow lives in Fargo, North Dakota, and is part of the Coalition for Bakken Crude Oil Stabilization.
Raw video footage from an explosion in eastern North Dakota in 2013.