LTE by DRC Member LYNN WOLFF:N.D. needs tougher rules to safely ship Bakken oil

N.D. needs tougher rules to safely ship Bakken oil

The dangers associated with shipping Bakken crude by rail have become a national issue. From New York to Seattle, people are concerned about Bakken crude rail cars rolling through their cities and towns.

With tragic incidents involving Bakken crude trains such as the Lac Megantic derailment that killed almost 50 people and the fiery train crashes that occurred in places such as Casselton, N.D., over the past year, it is clear that people’s concerns are warranted.

Dakota Resource Council members have been working to raise people’s awareness of the dangers of shipping Bakken oil by rail.

So, what is the real problem with shipping Bakken crude via rail?

The problem is the content of Bakken crude. Bakken crude contains more “light ends” or natural gas liquids (NGLs) than similar crudes. “Light ends” or NGLs include heating fuels such as propane and butane, which by their nature are volatile and explosive.

Think of Bakken crude as a can of carbonated soda. When you open it after shaking, the pressurized contents escape rapidly. Bakken crude in a rail car is similar. The “light ends” in the crude act like carbonation.

Furthermore, some of these oil cars are single-walled and have faulty valves. If the wall is punctured or the valves fail during a derailment, the pressurized contents rush out, and all it takes for them to explode is a spark.

Oil on its own will not explode if it spills. But with the NGLs and the associated pressure, these cars are turned into rolling bombs.

One solution is to use safer rail cars; but without addressing the contents of the crude, that’s only a small part of the solution. To truly make moving Bakken crude by rail safer, the “light ends” must be removed from the oil.

Typically, oil companies’ strip “light ends” out of the crude before shipping it via train or pipeline. But in the Bakken, this is not the case.

There are solutions that the oil industry can employ that can potentially remedy the volatile nature of Bakken crude. They include full-scale stabilization and oil conditioning on site.

Stabilization is a process in which oil producers build small micro-refineries or “stabilizers” that strip the “light ends” out of the oil — and by doing so, make the oil stable and safer for transport.

Stabilization requires an investment by oil companies, because they have to build the micro-refineries and dedicated pipelines to transport oil to be stabilized.

Oil conditioning is a process by which oil companies try to mitigate the pressure of the oil by using equipment on the well site. It could potentially strip “light ends” or NGLs, but the jury still is out on its effectiveness.

Dakota Resource Council submitted comments to state officials urging stabilization in order to ensure Bakken crude could be safely transported. In contrast, the oil industry in September testified that nothing needs to be done with Bakken crude before shipping it on rail cars.

State officials seem to be leaning toward requiring oil conditioning, thereby staking out a middle ground between DRC’s position and that of the oil industry.

DRC favors stabilization. But in order to ensure that oil conditioning being proposed by the North Dakota Industrial Commission is done with safety in mind, DRC’s oil and gas task force offers the following recommendations:

  • Ban the mixing of natural gas liquids with crude: Currently, many companies add NGLs or “light ends” to Bakken crude to maximize profits. This irresponsible practice should be banned altogether if the goal is to have a more stable oil.
  • Require dedicated trucks and pipelines that can move processed oil stripped of NGLs: To prevent the practice of mixing NGLs with crude, dedicated pipelines and trucks should be used to move treated oil to transport facilities.
  • No new flaring should result from this policy: The oil industry and the Petroleum Council have threatened that this policy will result in more flaring. It is DRC’s stance that the oil industry needs to be more creative with its products and create or tap into markets rather than flare off valuable heating fuels such as propane or butane.

Besides, there are companies that will willingly take heating fuels off of the oil industry’s hands at a discounted price, if given the chance.

  • North Dakotans should benefit from the NGLs that are stripped out of crude: Why not require the oil industry to create a market in North Dakota to sell the stripped NGLs? People in rural areas often require propane for heating in the winter; why not sell it to the people of North Dakota at a discounted rate to prevent flaring?

Wolff is a member of the Dakota Resource Council’s board.

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