Oil by rail: DOE report says shale oil not culprit in derailment explosions

American Petroleum Institute calls on Federal Govt to do more to prevent oil by rail accidents

A new report commissioned by the US Department of Energy debunks the idea that shale crude oil is more likely to explode or catch fire during a train derailment.

oil by rail

July 6, 2013 derailment and explosion of Bakken crude oil devastated Quebec town of Lac Megantic.

In the last five years, the movement of crude by rail has increased by 4,000 per cent, according to the DOE. By 2016 U.S. oil production will exceed 9 million barrels a day — a level not seen since 1970. Much of this new domestic oil and gas supply is being produced from unconventional resources — particularly light sweet crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota, as well as the Eagle Ford and Permian Basins in Texas.

While the great majority of oil by rail transport takes place without incident, there have been a number of high profile derailments in the United States and Canada that involved light sweet crude catching fire.

The  most serious occurred on July 6, 2013 in Lac Megantic, Que. when a 74-car train ran away and derailed near the town centre, causing tanker cars carrying Bakken crude to explode. Over 30 buildings were destroyed by the blast, which killed 47 people.

In the past few months there have been more high-profile derailments involving tanker cars and fires, including incidents in West Virginia and northern Ontario.

oil by rail

Dr. Paula Gant, deputy assistant secretary, Office of Oil and Natural Gas. Photo: Handout.

Several safety issues have been identified as potential causes of the derailments and fires, including track condition and construction of the DOT 111 tanker cars that make up the majority of both the American and Canadian oil tanker fleets.

The Department of Energy is helping to develop an understanding of scientific questions associated with the transportation of crude oils, including Bakken crude, and commissioned the Sandia National Laboratories, in cooperation with the Department of Transportation, to prepare a report that was released Tuesday: Literature Survey of Crude Oil Properties Relevant to Handling and Fire Safety in Transport.

“The report represents the most comprehensive survey of existing, publicly held data and analysis on the chemical and physical properties of tight crude oils completed to date,” said Paula Gant, deputy assistant secretary, Office of Oil and Natural Gas.

“This survey helps to inform understanding of these characteristics, and in doing so provide context for ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of crude oil transport.”

According to the DOE, the report confirms that while crude composition matters, no single chemical or physical variable – flash point, boiling point, ignition temperature, vapor pressure or the circumstances of an accident – has been proven to act as the sole variable to define the probability or severity of a combustion event.

“All variables matter,” said Gant.

There is some statistical evidence to suggest that Bakken crude has a higher true vapor pressure than other crude oils, however, the report identified a wide range of ways in which Bakken crude oil samples have been measured.

oil by rail

Robin Rorick, Director of Midstream, American Petroleum Institute. Photo: Handout.

“Available analysis of shale crude oil does not provide the necessary data or conclusion to enable meaningful comparison with other crude oil,” said Gant.

The report recommends additional research to identify the best way to collect and compare oil samples, while developing correlations between a particular property or set of properties and the likelihood or severity of rail transport-related combustion events.

The American Petroleum Institute says the report indicates the severity of derailments, not type of crude oil a train is carrying, are the major cause of explosions and fires.

“This report shows the need to focus more on preventing train derailments as part of a holistic approach to safety improvements of shipping oil by rail,” said Director of Midstream Robin Rorick. “The Department of Energy found no data showing correlation between crude oil properties and the likelihood or severity of a fire caused by a derailment.”

The kinetic energy created by a derailment can play a far bigger role in the size of a fire than whatever the train is hauling, according to the report. DOE’s key findings state that “the energy generated from an accident has the potential to greatly exceed the flammability impact of…crude oil property-based criteria.”

“This report raises puzzling questions about Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg’s suggestion that nothing more can be done to prevent derailments,” said Rorick.. “We can and must do more to prevent derailments as part of a comprehensive approach to safety.”

The report is an important step in developing a more complete, science-based understanding of outstanding questions associated with the production, treatment, and transportation of crude oils, says Gant.

“We are also working on an experimental plan that should give us more information on the correlation between certain oil properties and transportation safety,” she said.

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