New York Attorney General: Feds Must Address Bakken Crude Oil Bomb Trains. Feds: Maybe Later?

Jerri-Lynn here: This post reminds us that the Trump administration holds no monopoly on potentially disastrous environmental policies– such as the continued lack of limits on the volatility of crude oil transported by rail discussed below.  In fact, when this particular policy last came up for serious review in 2015 — brought to the fore by several serious rail accidents that made the dangers inherent in the status quo apparent– the White House punted (as this Reuters report the author cites makes crystal clear).  Remember that, please– both parties share credit for continued inaction on this issue.

Now, I’m no big fan of New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman. He’s been a big disappointment,  especially with respect to making the financial industry sit up and take notice: Benjamin Lawsky nor Eliot Spitzer he aint. But on this issue, he and his counterparts in other states, have spotlighted the dangers of existing policy (and I should add, their consistent in this regard predate Trump’s election, so are not obviously motivated by partisan concerns).

By Justin Mukulka,a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, NY. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has joined with attorneys general from California, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, and Washington in calling for limits on the volatility of crude oil transported by rail. The failure of federal regulators and Congress to address this known safety issue has led Schneiderman to continue to pressure regulators on it.

“Because of a regulatory loophole, these trains can carry crude oil through some of our most densely populated areas without any limit on explosiveness or flammability — creating ticking time bombs that jeopardize the safety of countless New Yorkers and Americans,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “It’s time for the federal government to put New Yorkers’ safety first and take immediate action to close this dangerous and nonsensical loophole.”

A coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council has also submitted comments to regulators urging the creation of volatility limits for crude oil.

This current effort to appeal to the Trump administration comes after years of the Obama administration failing to take action. As reported by Reuters, the directive to not regulate the volatility of Bakken oil came from the White House.

Volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale region in Montana and North Dakota has been involved in multiple train derailments resulting in large oil spills and fires. The worst such accident happened in the small Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. It resulted in the deaths of 47 people and the entire downtown area being destroyed. That accident occurred almost four years ago, but downtown Lac-Mégantic remains a large vacant lot.

Despite the dire warning about the dangers of moving the same volatile oil in unsafe tank cars, this practice continues in communities across North America today.

Oil Industry Using Denial Strategy Once Again

This really is a simple story. Reducing the volatility of the oil prior to transport by rail would increase safety but cut into oil industry profits, which is why the industry has fought any such regulations.

So far, these efforts have succeeded. Just as the oil industry has spent decades challenging the well-known evidence supporting human-caused climate change, industry has adopted the same approach for oil by rail, claiming that science doesn’t support using vapor pressure as a measure of volatility and risk.

In October 2016, at the annual Energy by Rail Conference in Arlington, Virginia, Suzanne Lemieux of the American Petroleum Institute (API) gave a presentation on crude oil volatility and stabilization with the title of “Crude Oil Volatility: Myth vs. Fact” — and she was pretty clear about what she thought was a myth.

“I will reiterate that volatility in itself is a myth as far as a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem,” Lemieux said. “It’s not the way to go as far as improving safety.”

Again mirroring the strategies used to undermine climate science, the preferred approach by the oil industry and its partners in Congress is to endlessly “study” already well-established science in order to delay action.

The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), an oil industry lobbying group, made the argument to regulators that any regulations should be delayed until “ongoing studies” of the characteristics of oil are completed. As noted by The Hill, the AFPM went so far as to argue, “Further proceedings based on crude oil characteristics conflict with Congress’ considered judgment to delay further regulation until the completion of ongoing studies on the transport of flammable materials …”

There is one glaring problem with that statement. When the Congressional science committee held a hearing on the volatility of Bakken oil in 2014, they didn’t invite any oil scientists to weigh in on this scientific matter. Which means their “considered judgment” was not informed by true experts familiar with the chemistry of oil.

Ask a Scientist: “Bunch of BS”

So what happens when you ask an actual oil scientist?

In an April 2015 article in Al Jazeera about the volatility of crude oil, an actual petroleum engineer clearly stated what is widely known in the oil and rail industries.

“The notion that this requires significant research and development is a bunch of BS,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Houston. “The science behind this has been revealed over 80 years ago, and developing a simple spreadsheet to calculate risk based on composition and vapor pressure is trivial. This can be done today.”

Meanwhile, the real reason why the oil industry is fighting these regulations was explained in March 2014 when the The Oregonian interviewed Harry Giles, a former U.S. Department of Energy official who led the Strategic Petroleum Reserve’s crude oil quality program. Giles explained why oil producers would not want to stabilize the oil by removing the explosive components like propane and butane to make it safer to transport.

“It maximizes their profit and creates more volume,” Giles said. “It’s bulking up the crude. It’s a Catch-22. You either flare it [butane and propane] and lose a valuable component, or put it in crude oil and increase volatility.”

“It maximizes their profit” — there’s the answer. There is no consideration of the risk to the millions of people who live along the tracks where this potentially explosive oil is transported in inadequate rail cars.

Meanwhile, Congress, funded by the rail and oil companies it’s charged with regulating, has agreed with the industry’s talking point, and directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to continue studying the issue.

In April of 2015, industry publication Railway Age asked the DOE why it needed further research on what is known and established science. In reporting on the lack of response from DOE, Railway Age was quite blunt in assessing the situation:

“There was no response from the Department of Energy to our request for more information about the study, specifically why it needs two more years to figure out what by now should be obvious to the dullest high school chemistry student.”

However, just as with its relentless attacks on climate science, the oil industry has once again successfully delayed any meaningful action on regulating the oil-by-rail industry. Now, more than two years after Railway Age asked the DOE that question, those ongoing studies have yet to show any results. Safety delayed is safety denied … but great for industry profits.

“A Dangerous Conversation”

At the Energy by Rail Conference, Suzanne Lemieux stated that just having a conversation about limiting the volatility of crude oil was a “dangerous conversation.”

“And so we in the oil and gas industry see this as a very dangerous conversation,” Lemieux said. “Because the main point is that you’re not really reducing risk.” Later Lemieux stressed that the idea of regulating crude oil vapor pressure and volatility was a “huge concern” for the API.

However, the most important point Lemieux made was in her opening statement.

“Just to preface my presentation, I am not a petroleum engineer and nor am I a chemical engineer,” Lemieux stated.

But keep in mind what an actual petroleum engineering professor said about the issue: The science has been known for 80 years and calculating risk based on an oil’s composition and vapor pressure was “trivial” and “could be done today.” That was over two years ago.

Why weren’t any oil scientists presenting on this issue at the Energy by Rail conference instead of the API’s Lemieux? As the oil industry said itself, that would be a very dangerous conversation.

For more on the science of oil volatility, plus highlights from the Congressional hearing on Bakken oil, watch this DeSmog video:

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  1. Ignacio

    The Oil industry is then playing with fire, and they know it. What about insurance on railway oil transport. Would risk premia for Bakken oil transport tell us if they are factoring these risks adequately?

  2. fajensen

    The science has been known for 80 years and calculating risk based on an oil’s composition and vapor pressure was “trivial” and “could be done today.”

    Same can be said about large rocket engines – and in exactly the same way “we” somehow “can’t” design and build these today :p.

  3. brightdarkness

    We used to have 3-4 100 tank car trains a day rolling through town from the Dakotas. They’ve all but stopped since the Dakota pipeline came on line.

    No more trains and Warren Buffet loses 6+ million a day too.

  4. Lynn

    Flaring is not exactly environmentally friendly, not to mention the increased release of carcinogens in the air. Anyone do a study yet of the cancer rates of people who worked in the Bakken? The guys I know who worked up there said they were supposed to don safety equipment/clothing if a warning sounded, but that it happened so often, nobody did because otherwise they’d get nothing done. Heard that directly from a family member, who was dead from cancer within a year of leaving the oil fields. Made really good money but didn’t live to spend it on anything but hospitals. Not the only one I know of like that, either

  5. Dead Dog

    Hey, I see plenty of trucks carrying flammable liquids on the roads. What is the issue with trains?

    Don’t get it…

  6. WeakenedSquire

    Isn’t oil only being transported on railcars because the pipelines could not be built for political reasons? And shouldn’t that stumbling block be kaput with oil-friendly governments in both Washington and Ottawa?

    1. brightdarkness

      BNSF is owned by Warren Buffett and has made, according to reports, $6 million a day transporting oil. He can buy a lot of influence in DC.

  7. Synapsid

    Mukulka quotes Harry Giles in an interview in The Oregonian, in March 2014, as saying “You either flare it [butane and propane] and lose a valuable component, or put it in crude oil and increase volatility.”

    That statement was more correct in March 2014 than it is now because markets, particularly export markets, have opened up for natural-gas liquids (NGLs) which have high value as feedstock for petrochemicals such as polyethylene and polypropylene. Ethane and propane exports from the US have grown rapidly, and ethane-carrying ships, fueled by ethane, are being built by China right now. The growth in exports is made possible by expanding pipelines to carry the stuff. Focusing solely on the question of regulating transport of NGLs by rail misses this growth, but it does draw attention to the lack of progress on the question over the past years.

  8. Jim

    Too late, pipeline active, oil by rail will end soon, all shipments of bakken crude pumped by pipe, loaded onto ships, to refiners much cheaper. Done. American flagged ships. More jobs. Scrap all those railcars and make into pipe.

  9. Retired ChemEng

    There are a lot of questions unanswered about the bomb trains. The Lac Megantic videos show four separate explosions that look a lot like BLEVEs, boiling liquid expanding vapour explosions. You get those in pressurized tank cars like LPG, propane, and butane. They produce a huge explosion and an incandescent fireball, as in the video.
    Crude oil tank cars aren’t pressure vessels, and the tanks split open quickly in a fire, releasing liquids and gases that make for a big pool fire but not an explosion. The pool fire in Lac Megantic burned for days as the contents of 60 some cars of Bakken crude burned after those cars split open. But only four cars exploded. Even with dissolved gases evolving, those tank cars should have ruptured quickly and burned rather than exploded.
    If the railroads and oil companies would pony up the dough, I’m sure you could find some retired chemical engineer who would be more than happy to blow some tank cars up for the sake of science and safety.

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