The energy industry needs to do more to control the volatility of oil and other fuels transported by the nation's railroads, according to Sarah Feinberg, acting head of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
Railroads have been pulling their weight in the effort to reduce the number of derailments and other accidents, but FRA is "running out of things that I think we can put on the railroads to do, and there have to be other industries that have skin in the game," Feinberg told reporters last week. She said she has been "calling on the energy industry to do more for weeks, if not months. Quietly for months, much more vocally for weeks."
Contacted by NGI's Shale Daily, FRA would not elaborate on what Feinberg is looking for from the energy industry. When pressed, an FRA spokesman referred NGI's Shale Daily to the agency's Action Plan For Hazardous Materials Safety, which was released last year (see Shale Daily, July 24, 2014). The plan included an order requiring stricter testing, classification and packaging requirements for the transport of crude oil by rail, a warning that Bakken region crude oil may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude, and a DOT warning to avoid using older legacy DOT Specification 111 or CTC-111 tank cars for the shipment of Bakken crude.
But singling out the energy industry won't help to prevent crude-by-rail accidents, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API).
"We are disappointed by Acting Administrator Feinberg's suggestion that nothing more can be done to prevent derailments," API spokesman Brian Straessle told NGI's Shale Daily. "Our safety goal, along with the railroads, is zero incidents, which requires a holistic approach to prevention, mitigation and response. Our industry will not stop working until the goal of zero incidents is achieved."
Feinberg's remarks came just days after a freight train operated by the BNSF Railway Co. and loaded with crude oil from the Bakken Shale derailed and caught fire near Galena, IL (see Shale Daily, March 6). The train, which originated in North Dakota, had 103 cars loaded with crude oil and two buffer cars loaded with sand. BNSF said 21 of the cars derailed. The company said all the tank cars involved in the derailment were the unjacketed CPC-1232 model with half-height head shields -- not the weaker DOT-111 model that DOT has been trying to phase out following a series of similar derailments (see Shale Daily, July 25, 2013). Last month, a 109-car CSX Corp. train loaded with Bakken crude derailed and burned in southern West Virginia (see Shale Daily,Feb. 17). All of the tank cars in that incident were also CPC-1232.
A derailment and explosion of an unattended freight train loaded with crude oil that wiped out the town and 47 citizens in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, was caused by 18 different factors, according to a Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) report (see Shale Daily, Aug. 20, 2014). The TSB said the railway line (now defunct) involved in the accident -- the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway -- had a weak safety culture and did not have a system in place to manage safety risks (see Shale Daily, July 9, 2013).
The relative volatility of Bakken crude has been disputed. According to Straessle, "multiple scientific studies had shown Bakken crude does not present greater than normal transportation risks for flammable liquids."
Astudy released last year by the North Dakota Petroleum Council concluded that Bakken crude poses no more risk in rail shipment than other fuels. Bakken crude, according to the report, has an API gravity, sulfur content, initial boiling point and flashpoint all similar to many other light sweet crude oils and/or is within normal ranges. A white paper from FRA's Office of Safety last year concluded that "denatured alcohol poses a similar, if not greater, risk as (Bakken) crude oil when released from a tank car failing catastrophically and resulting in a large fireball type of fire with or without an explosion."
The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) last year said Bakken crude isn't significantly more dangerous than crude from other plays to transport by rail and poses a lower transport risk than other flammable liquids (see Shale Daily, May 15, 2014). But AFPM, which represents nearly all of the petroleum refiners and petrochemical manufacturers in the United States, conceded that Bakken crude may contain higher amounts of dissolved flammable gases compared to heavier crudes.
Critics of crude rail transport point to conflicting data and studies that have found Bakken crude to be more volatile than other oils. They claim that companies are rushing the fuel from wells to rails without sufficiently separating out volatile gases, and continue to use rail tank cars that do not meet industry safety standards.
In the United States, the number of rail cars carrying crude oil increased sharply, from 10,000 in 2008 to 415,000 in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads (see Shale Daily, May 21, 2014). These cars lumber through towns and cities all across the country in multiple 100-car trains. DOT has been at work for years on a series of proposed regulations aimed at strengthening tanker cars that carry crude, making tracks and equipment safer and improving maintenance and operating practices. Last month, DOT submitted a long-awaited rulemaking package to the Obama administration for review in the final step of implementing stronger regulations.
Canadian regulators have proposed introducing a new class of tank cars to transport flammable liquids by rail, requiring shippers to begin phasing out what they consider to be the most dangerous rolling stock for crude oil in two years for a complete transition by 2025 (see Shale Daily,March 12). Nonjacketed DOT-111 tank cars would be barred from transporting crude oil after May 1, 2017, and from carrying ethanol after May 1, 2020. Jacketed DOT-111 tank cars would not be allowed to transport all crude -- meaning Packing Groups (PG) I, II and III -- and ethanol after Dec. 1, 2021. The timeline also calls for phasing out CPC-1232 tank cars. Substances are designated to PGs based on their flashpoints.
A committee in the Canadian House of Commons recently released a list of 10 recommendations for transporting dangerous goods, including two that specifically target DOT-111 tank cars, which officials in Canada and the United States have said should be removed from service because of dangerous design flaws (see Shale Daily, July 25, 2013).
Oil transported via pipelines doesn't face the same varying rules as different crudes do on rail, according to John Stoody, spokesman for the Association of Oil Pipe Lines.
"There aren't different rules for different crudes, there is a single rule for the pipeline to which all crudes or petroleum products shipped within it must meet, regardless of its origin or type," Stoddy said. Shipping tariff agreements lay out specifications in different areas, including viscosity, API gravity and sulfur content, and shippers must meet the specifications for delivery.
"The main safety focus for pipelines are sediment and water content to prevent long-term damage (such as through erosion or corrosion) to the pipeline. Pipeline operators do have vapor pressure specs for their pipelines, but this is not the same type of issues for pipelines as it is for other modes of transportation."
Thousands of railroad tank cars transporting oil and other hazardous materials have valves that allow small quantities of the products to leak, according to FRA, which last week ordered the valves be replaced.
"After tank car owners have inspected and/or replaced the unapproved valves on each affected tank car as required...and have provided the necessary information regarding that car to FRA, tank car owners may load the cars with hazardous materials and offer those cars for transportation," FRA said in a directive issued last Friday. The faulty valves have been associated with "a small number of relatively minor hazardous materials leaks," it said.