In announcing last week that it will require oil companies to “condition” Bakken oil before shipment, North Dakota’s Industrial Commission stated that “[t]his will significantly change the characteristics of crude oil.” What was not stated, however, is that this will have virtually no impact on the volatility of the oil shipped via rail through our communities and environment. Here’s why:

 

The measure that is used to determine the volatility of flammable liquids is called RVP — Reid vapor pressure. The new North Dakota law that will go into effect on April 1 will set the limit on Bakken oil to no more than 13.7 RVP pounds per square inch (psi).

Let’s see how this regulation compares with what is already known (the lower the number, the less volatile the product is):

• Crude oil from the Gulf of Mexico has a RVP psi of approximately 3.

• For crude oil from the Eagle Ford shale formation in Texas, that number is approximately 8.

• For gasoline, it’s approximately 9.

• The Lac-Mégantic oil-train explosion in Quebec had a tested RVP psi just above 9.

• Bakken crude oil typically has a RVP psi between 11.5 and 11.8.

The bottom line is that the limit has been set so high by North Dakota that the mandate is toothless. The same volatile oil that caused the massive explosions in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Mégantic would still have been allowed to ride the rails, according to this new mandate.

Of course, the petroleum industry has been protesting that the problem isn’t with the oil, it’s with the railroads. Although there is some truth to the fact that railroads should share in the blame, let’s also not forget it’s the petroleum industry that leases the DOT-111 tank cars that ride the rails.

The National Transportation Safety Board has stated numerous times that the DOT-111 tank cars hauling hazardous materials either need to be seriously upgraded or pulled from service completely.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Transportation is considering new rules to phase out some of the DOT-111s by 2020, but that only applies to trains hauling 20 or more of these tank cars. All others will be allowed to stay in service indefinitely.

So how much oil travels through Minnesota per day on these deficient DOT-111s?

From records released this year, we know that approximately 50 oil unit trains pass through Minnesota on a weekly basis. To put this into perspective, that’s about seven oil trains per day. That’s about 500,000 barrels of oil per day via rail. Currently, the Enbridge Alberta Clipper pipeline carries about 450,000 barrels per day.

For all practical purposes, we have a rail pipeline passing through our state — and research has shown that, on a per-mile basis, the accident rate is 3 to 3.5 times higher by rail vs. pipeline.

It’s time to stop this smoke-and-mirrors game. We need the petroleum and rail industries, along with our legislators, to meaningfully reduce the volatility of Bakken oil and to remove from service DOT-111 tank cars that carry all hazardous materials, not just the oil in trains with 20 or more cars. Doing anything less is continuing to put our citizens and environment at great risk.

 

Alan Stankevitz lives in La Crescent, Minn. His website “The DOT-111 Reader” (http://dot111.info) is a clearinghouse for information related to DOT-111 tank cars and subjects related to shipping crude oil via rail.