Are Fracking Fluids to Blame for Rail Car Explosions?

By James Burgess, who worked in property development, chartered surveying, marketing, law, and accounts and is Deputy Editor of OilPrice. Originally published at OilPrice

Over the past year or so there seems to have been far more train derailments of cars carrying crude oil that have resulted in huge, deadly explosions, and it is not a coincidence that the oil in these explosions originated from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota.

One problem is that the light crude extracted from the Bakken is more flammable than heavy crude, but there are other factors at play here as well.

In order to extract oil in the Bakken the oil companies use fracking to split apart the shale rock and gain access to the tight light oil trapped there. A special mix of chemicals is used to split the rocks underground, and while companies refuse to disclose the exact composition of this cocktail of chemicals, claiming that it is a trade secret, there is a high possibility that they are extremely flammable. Some of these chemicals remain mixed up in the crude oil, thereby increasing its flammability.

Recently the Wall Street Journal has also looked into the increase in explosions of rail tankers carrying fracked crude oil. “Crude is flammable, but before being refined into products such as gasoline it is rarely implicated in explosions,” wrote the WSJ. They suggested three possibilities for the explosions: irresponsible care during the transport of the crude; other, more flammable products such as propane naturally mixed into the crude; or the addition of flammable chemicals during the fracking process.

Back in August Bloomberg identified another problem caused by the fracking chemicals, which is much of the millions of gallons of chemicals injected into the ground during fracking is in the form of hydrochloric acid. This is a highly corrosive substance and the railway administration has begun to note an increasing number of tanker cars are suffering damage to their interior surfaces after transporting light crude, likely due to the presence of the acid, and that this is weakening the tanks and making them more prone to rupture.

An article on Grist reports that two government agencies, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, have launched a joint investigation into the impurities in the Bakken crude to try and determine whether new regulations are needed to ensure safe handling.

Some initial inspections have found that the oil includes chemicals that mean it is combustible at very low temperatures, meaning that it should be transported in special, secure rail cars reserved for extremely flammable products. Instead the crude is being loaded onto normal tankers that are designed with fewer safety precautions and intended for less flammable liquids.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. kimsarah

    This should fuel some discussion. Perhaps the regulators and the oil companies don’t want to know the answer. Because that might result in higher cost to separate the fracking chemicals from the oil before it is transported. And that might hurt profits.
    It might create more jobs, but not the jobs the Kochs and Boehners of the world would like to see. By the way, since politicians are already campaigining on “jobs, jobs jobs,” isn’t it about time they are asked, and explain what type of jobs, how many, and the quality of the “jobs, jobs jobs” they are talking about? What a bunch.

    1. James Levy

      From what I’ve read there are no real profits. These shale oil operations seem to run dead even or lose money. They exist because crude prices hit a certain point (a bit over $80 a barrel) where this extraction method became marginally viable. This, and the promise of rising prices circa 2006-8, set off a stampede, and the hype, windfalls to be made by the executives and stock offerings (and the desperate need by the media and the public to believe that we will go happily motoring into the future) have kept it all rolling.

      The primary purpose of all this dirty, expensive unconventional oil is to paper over the reality that conventional oil production has peaked. Shale and tar oil, combined with the global economic downturn, has masked that reality nicely. But just like everything else in this political economy, it is meant to extend and pretend, not confront and overcome.

      1. susan the other

        Agree and more. It is not just that the decision has been made to keep oil reserves in the ground (by the Saudis and others). Oil use is not just the thing that keeps our petro-dollar circulating – it is the one thing which our military cannot allow to diminish. Oil use translates directly into US military control of the world economy. It is huge. So when the other oil producers said they wouldn’t continue to produce oil at the frenetic rate before 2007, the US began to develop alternate sources – Bakken shale, etc. Our goal is not merely to supply a world grown tired or oil, but to force that world to continue to use oil, to produce it here cheaply and export it wildly. The talk about how oil prices must be maintained at at least 80$ a barrel is relative nonsense because our military industrial complex will produce domestic oil for export no matter what the cost and loss. Because it is how we control the economy of the world. Just thinkin.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Job quality is as important, if not more, than just the job itself, and in a lot of other things in life as well, like food quality, instead of instead of hitting the wheat harvest target of the 5 year plan.

  2. LucyLulu

    It isn’t just railroad accidents. It was reported that the cause of the pipeline rupture in the suburban Arkansan neighborhood last summer was due to transporting toxic bitumen sludge through pipeline built 50 years ago to handle Brent, traveling the opposite direction.

    The industry has given us an updated version of firewater however.

    1. diptherio

      I think the major problem with our pipeline system (assuming we’re going to have one, although it would be better if we could leave the oil/gas in the ground) is that it is owned by private corporations. I think the pipeline system needs to be nationalized as a matter of public safety. Right now, the incentives are such that the pipeline companies (and their employees) are incentivized to hide problems in the pipe and delay repairs through litigation. If we had a publicly owned pipeline system, our safety engineers would be working with the day-to-day operators to keep the pipe safe, rather than working against them.

      1. redleg

        Pipelines are only profitable when they are piping something. Pigging the pipe means no product and lost revenue. The incentive is to defer the maintenance, especially when the chance of a leak or deflagration/detonation is very small. Very small until it happens, that is. Nationalizing the pipelines might help (and I’m in favor of it), but would not guarantee leak-free operation.

        Has anyone looked at volume of oil transported by rail? It could be that the higher number of spills/fires are close to normal per car/mile but the number of car/miles is much higher than normal. I don’t have the stats on this, but I would like to.

  3. Lambert Strether

    I believe that the exact composition of fracking fluids can be held as a trade secret. I don’t see how you can regulate on that basis; how do you know what’s really going into the tank cars? If they’re admitting to hydrochloric acid — what could go wrong? — what aren’t they admitting to?

    1. William Neil

      Having “immersed” myself for about two weeks in fracking matters to help prepare someone for a debate, I have grown increasingly skeptical about this whole “proprietary” shielding of the exact chemicals used in fracking. I strongly doubt that one or several companies are rocketing successes in extraction over competitors because they have a special chemical formula to push the gas out. At least I’ve seen no claims for such. Much more likely is a range of industry known additives with a lot of flexibility required due to local formation quirks, depth and surrounding geology. Equally possible is that this proprietary chemical business is meant to serve as a legal shield from damage claimants, where it would be very helpful in the crucial testing process to know what chemicals one was looking for – although as I have said, I strongly suspect there is a very finite universe. Nonetheless, let’s say “likely suspects” are found in someone’s well water, or an aquifer, or even in the kitchen tap. The company can then deny that use “that one” and break the legal chain.
      To show how far industry power and obsessiveness has gone in this area, the state of Pennsylvania enacted laws trying to “gag” physicians treating patients suspected of suffering health problems due to fracking pollution. It was a clear attempt to allow physicians to treat and consult among colleagues, but required them not to further disclose what the companies shared with them on the proprietary basis. Astounding. The PA Supreme Court didn’t seem to like this provision, and remanded it for further review to a lower court – this was in a Dec. of 2013 decision on several provisions of Act 13.
      Anyone wanting to weep over the fate of the republic can find lots to shed tears over in following the power of oil and gas to weaken, exempt and shield their work from citizens and the regulatory process. Pennsylvania seems not to have learned much in two centuries of carbon mining, since they haven’t nearly finished the job of cleaning up what the coal centuries have wrought upon their landscape and waters.

      1. James Levy

        I think it is yet another attempt by Americans to use patents to control outsiders. Everyone on Earth desperate for oil (and in the years ahead, that means almost everyone) will come cap in hand to the Americans to get their “secret sauce” to extract the oil and gas, much as they now have to go to Monsanto to get their seeds. That’s the strategy in a nutshell, and if our aquifers have to be polluted in the process, well, that’s a price the imperium will pay for extending its dominion a couple more decades.

          1. James Levy

            They’ll have a boatload of trouble calling our bluff because life, economies, and hierarchies are all built on a gasoline-fueled economy. At this point there is no alternative to the cheap, convenient, and easily transported/distributed power (and I mean that literally and figuratively) of gasoline/fuel oil. Nothing at all can remotely replace it and keep our living, earning, and power arrangements as they are. And military power is still a function of fuel reserves, just as it was in 1941 when the Japanese looked at their 2 million tons of reserves after the US cut them off and said to themselves, “Now or never.” So keeping the hydrocarbon economy going, no matter what the destructive consequences, is the name of the game. For the global elite, all other considerations are secondary and all disruptive alternatives off the table. Europeans (and their American offshoot) rode hydrocarbons from being just another civilization in 1750 to global hegemony and unprecedented wealth and power. They are going to stick with the girl who brought them to the dance even as the clock begins to strike midnight and she turns into a werewolf.

            1. Sammy Maudlin

              I agree with everything you say, except I’m not so sure that they are going to ride hydrocarbons until they can’t be rode no more.

              Britain faced a choice in the early 20th Century whether to keep its Navy powered by local, safe, plentiful coal, or roll the dice and go with the more efficient, but harder to get oil. Churchill (among others) recognized that oil-powered ships were the wave of the future (no pun intended) and went forward with converting the fleet despite the lack of a safe and plentiful supply at the time.

              That decision, along with the use of the first (oil-powered) tanks, and the arrival of the Americans with their steady oil supply made the difference in WWI. By the end of the war, all recognized that the key to global power was having, and maintaining, access to oil.

              Thirty years prior, no one could have envisioned the sea change (again, NPI) that oil brought to the global economy. But a few men in power were able to see the future and the Empire and its allies have benefitted greatly economically as a result. Perhaps thirty years from now, someone will be facing a similar choice. Maybe it has already been made. Who knows?

            2. Nathanael

              Nonsense. It’s basically trivial to get off of gasoline. I’m driving an electric car and you can too. Switching home heating is even easier, and oil isn’t used for anything else much.

              The transition is being prevented for essentially political reasons.

      2. McMike

        The trade secret smokescreen is simply PR/legal shuck and jive.

        Pretty sure the actual competitors all know what each other are doing. And there’s always patents to protect themselves if it is truly that innovative.

        1. jrs

          And really how had can it be to hide? Are purchase orders made for certain chemicals from suppliers? Just trace the supply chain from there. Trace in the increase in demand for certain “likely suspect” chemicals and who the companies that produce them are supplying to.

      3. redleg

        Most of the problems with fracking is not what is put IN the ground – it’s what comes OUT. Not to give the fracking fluids a free ride, but 99% of them are sand and fresh water. The goal of fracking is to remove hydrocarbons along with associated fluids and gases (methane, radon, salt water, etc), and the process does not differentiate between controlled or uncontrolled removal. And the fluids ultimately removed from the well are at least an order of magnitude (10+ times) greater than what is put into the well during development.

        Even if the fracking fluid is 100% harmless (it isn’t), the environmental problems would be exactly the same. By changing the way the problem is framed – focus on what comes OUT of an oil/gas well – the big picture problems with this can be addressed either through a drilling/well development moratorium or environmental regulations with razor-sharp teeth. Focusing on the fracking fluids is not going to stop extraction related environmental damage, because full disclosure of chemical additives to fracking fluid (and even elimination of them) will not stop extraction.

        1. redleg

          Cliff notes version of above:
          If the problem is what is coming out of a fracked well, whether that is into the groundwater or out of the wellhead, then regulating/discussing what goes into the well is moot. It does not address the problem.

  4. diptherio

    Continuing a conversation from last week about the relative safety of pipeline vs. rail transport for hazardous liquids, and which method we should prefer; from a civvie engineer with pipeline safety experience in response to me asking him where to find data:

    “PHMSA is responsible for tracking spills and spill rates. Thinking would be a good
    place to start for pipelines. I think FRA is responsible for rail spills so
    I would look at If you can get the right
    data you need to compare by barrel miles, that is the number of barrels
    shipped times the miles shipped so you are comparing apples to apples, if
    that makes sense. There are a lot more barrel miles of liquids product
    shipped via pipeline than rail so it would stand to reason that the number of spills from pipelines is greater than rail.

    And I would guess that the higher the volume shipped by rail the higher the
    risk because of higher rail traffic concentrations. That affects required
    maintenance levels needed on tracks to keep them aligned both vertically and
    horizontally, increases potentials for train to train or train and train to
    auto conflicts which lead to derailments. Also the volume that can be
    shipped by rail is reaching its max and the WB field is still expanding.
    Also oil as well as coal transport in the west is affecting passenger train scheduling and city traffic conflicts (Helena).

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t find barrel-mile data on the PHMSA site, just total barrels spilled, and FRA doesn’t appear to have accidents broken out by type of cars, just amount of damage/fatalities. Someplace to start at any rate, if someone wants to dig in….

    1. McMike

      You need to also consider the extent of damage from various spills.

      One downtown blown up = how many miles of river destroyed. [for example]

  5. ChrisCairns

    Plenty of acids and flammables in the list here:

    This whole business stinks and many Australians are worried about the toxic affects, particularly to groundwater. Here, the big focus is on gas, not oil, but our governments have sided with the oil and gas companies to cast aside environmental and landowners concerns allowing businesses to set up well heads on private land. It will take a lot of lives before someone is willing to do anything about it. Very sad to see.

  6. afisher

    The back and forth about “the cause” ignores some parts of basic questions. The more that a technique is used for transfer, be it rail or pipe, the opportunity for failure increases.
    The amount of cars and volume of oil shipped by rail have increased dramatically over the past 5 years.
    The most recent spill in North Dakota report included the statement of one guy – in which he said that the railroad has an answer – which is to use double hull (if that is the term) cars. That of course will cost dollars and therefore it will be the path of last resort.

    1. McMike

      The infrastructure in all cases is being overworked, under-maintained, used beyond it effective life, used beyond its operating tolerances, and used outside its original purpose.

      Perfect recipe for: Bad Things Happen.

      1. Chauncey Gardiner


        Don’t have a subscription to the newspaper which posted the article you cited, but perhaps this post will partially answer your question:

        Also am acquainted with an engineer who works with refineries in Ferndale, WA. According to him, they are “excited to be receiving very sweet Bakken crude” via rail (North Slope crude is “sour”). He said they are “making boatloads of money”.

      2. Elliot

        Amtrak (passenger cars) are 2nd in line to freight cars, have been for many years now. If there is a derailment or other slowdown, passenger trains are shunted to sidings while the freight makes up for lost time. A trip from Seattle to Chicago can be slowed many times, to make way for freight. And since there are vastly more oil trains, and vastly more cars in them, those waits get longer and longer.

        Lord I hate to think what it looks like out the window on the ride through ND and MT now. . .

        1. Nathanael

          “Amtrak (passenger cars) are 2nd in line to freight cars, have been for many years now”

          This is illegal — the law absolutely requires that passenger trains have top priority — but the freight railroads do it anyway, because it’s hard to enforce the law.

  7. Chauncey Gardiner

    This issue h/b “out there” for many months, and perhaps longer. Toronto’s newspaper The Globe and Mail ran a series of articles about it relating to the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec disaster. Yet as far as I know, nothing meaningful h/b done. The explosion in North Dakota would seem to confirm this.

    47 people lost their lives in that explosion, nearly all of them children and young people:

    I understand the RR involved simply declared bankruptcy. Another tragic example of “Privatize the profits, socialize the losses.”

    A primary responsibility of government, public safety and welfare, is evidently being given little regard.

  8. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    If this ‘crude’ can damage railcars, shouldn’t we be concerned about this ‘crude” damaging the refinery infrastructure itself – a lot of them are in urban areas and concentrated – as well?

  9. Yancey Ward

    I seriously doubt fracking chemicals are all that flammable. Acids might well be a contributing factor, but without evidence, it can’t be easily assessed. Surely a tanker car owner has standards for pH, but who knows?

    By far, the most likely explanation is the great increase of such shipments in that area of the country, plus the different nature of the petroleum product itself- it could easily contain a larger fraction of low-boiling alkanes/alkenes.

  10. yan

    You are forgetting the this also an asset bubble where wall street is able to park their money for a bit in search of some yield for some time. It’ll blow up…would love to know how the financing is structured and who is nominally left holding the bag. Even Tillerson said explicitly it’s a black hole as an investment.

  11. Yves Smith Post author

    Please read more carefully. This is the statement:

    Some initial inspections have found that the oil includes chemicals that mean it is combustible at very low temperatures, meaning that it should be transported in special, secure rail cars reserved for extremely flammable products.

    “Initial inspections” means this isn’t speculation at a distance; they have evidence in hand.

    Moreover the description is not that the fracking chemicals themselves are highly combustible, but that they reduce the combustion temperature of the oil. Now that may be directly by the fracking chemicals indeed being quite flammable, but the wording is broad and allows for alternative mechanisms.

    1. redleg

      Some additives affect the vapor pressure/ boiling temperature – the vapor/ gas phase are the ones that are the most flammable and what causes pressure to build when sealed.

      Other additives affect the flash point or the temperature at which the stuff burns.

      Adding a complex mixture of chemicals to crude oil may produce unintended side effects, as these chemicals interact with each other and the hydrocarbon species in the crude. Haliburton/Schlumberger may have tested individual components’ reactions with various crudes, but I highly doubt that they haven’t tested ALL of them in one cocktail.

      Remember that the additives, the stuff people are pointing fingers at in this thread, are a tiny fraction of the problem. Petroleum IS FLAMMABLE without additives – different kinds are more or less so. The fracking chemicals merely modify how flammable the stuff is – eliminate them altogether and the crude is still flammable.

  12. Chauncey Gardiner

    I would very much like to hear from petroleum chemists and chemical engineers on this matter.

    This from:

    The money quote: “Federal investigators said the chemicals the oil contains from the hydraulic fracturing process make it more flammable than traditional heavy crude.”
    “Transporting these 50 and 100 tanker car trains of crude oil that is volatile and flammable and explosive, it’s really dangerous business,” said Diane Bailey, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    Bailey said the chemicals known to be used in fracking such as benzene are also very toxic. “Benzene is a very powerful cancer causing agent associated with all sorts of health impacts particularly things like leukemia in children,” she said.

    Related Links (at website cited above):
    PHMSA Safety Alert (.pdf)
    FRA Joint Safety Advisory

    And an excerpt from a recent related article from Truth-out:

    “Special Conditions”

    Rather than a normal permit, Marquis was given a “special conditions” permit because the Bakken oil it receives from BNSF contains high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the same threat PHMSA noted in its recent safety alert. Among the most crucial of the special conditions: Marquis must flare off the VOCs before barging the oil down the Mississippi River. (Flaring is already a highly controversial practice in the Bakken Shale region, where gas is flared off at rates comparable to Nigeria.)  It’s a tacit admission that the Bakken Shale oil aboard the exploded BNSF train in Casselton, ND is prone to such an eruption.

    “Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) emissions are expected from the proposed equipment,” explains the Marquis permit. “There will be evaporative losses of Toluene, Xylene, Hexane, and Benzene from the crude oil handled by the installation.”

    Benzene is a carcinogen, while toluene, xylene and hexane are dangerous volatiles that can cause severe illnesses or even death at high levels of exposure.

    Scientific Vindication

    In a December 31 Google Hangout conversation between actor Mark Ruffalo, founder of Water Defense, and the group’s chief scientist Scott Smith, Mr. Smith discussed the oil samples he collected on a previous visit to North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

    “What I know from the testing I’ve done on my own — I went out to the Bakken oil fields and pumped oil from the well — I know there are unprecedented levels of these explosive volatiles: benzene, toluene, xylene,” said Smith. “And from the data that I’ve gotten from third parties and tested myself, 30 to 40 percent of what’s going into those rail cars are explosive volatiles, again that are not in typical oils.”

Comments are closed.