Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz said it will probably take two years to complete research into what makes some crude oil more volatile than other varieties, as regulators grapple with how to handle crude oil by rail shipments in the wake of several derailments and explosions.

One week after the Obama administration released its Quadrennial Energy Review (QER), Moniz told the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources that DOE and the Department of Transportation (DOT) had agreed to share the cost for producing a report on the volatility of crude oil, through a partnership with the Sandia National Laboratories (see Daily GPI, April 21).

“We have already put out, from Sandia, what was really a comprehensive literature survey in terms of the properties of different oils — most especially the tight oil that is the focus of a lot of the concern,” Moniz said Tuesday. “That first report…had some interesting findings, including the need for a much more systematized collection of characterization data of crudes.”

Moniz said the Sandia survey “did suggest that the data that was reviewed did not imply that any one property of the oil would determine what would happen in terms of combustibility in an accident. But it recommended a major research project which [DOT] Secretary [Anthony] Foxx and I have agreed to co-fund, which is now being launched.

“It will probably take two years to get through the full research program. That will include research into the characterization [of the crudes] — how one samples, where one samples — with a focus on what the implications will be for testing and then understanding how crude oil properties affect things like combustibility in accidents.”

Earlier this month, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart said investigators were still analyzing data from four recent rail car accidents — including two in Canada — and urged the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration to adopt four safety recommendations for rail cars that carry flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol (see Shale Daily, April 8).

“The early indications are that no one property seems to be directly correlated to the combustibility issues,” Moniz said. “But that will be researched much more in the next year, and then there will be specific combustion tests done in accident scenarios to test this out.”

Moniz added that DOT was also collaborating with the U.S. Energy Information Administration to build a database on the movement of energy commodities, after complaints that oil shipments by rail were displacing other cargoes, including agricultural products.

“Frankly, there’s been very sparse data available,” Moniz said. “We would like to also recommend collaboration with other departments, including USDA [the Department of Agriculture] and others, to have a more unified commodity database.”

Hart said NTSB is still investigating a Feb. 16 accident that occurred in southern West Virginia, when a 109-car CSX Corp. train loaded with crude oil from the Bakken Shale derailed and burned. It is also studying a March 5 derailment and pool fire near Galena, IL (see Shale Daily, March 6; Feb. 17).

NTSB also collected data from two accidents that occurred near Gogama, Ontario, Canada, on Feb. 14 and March 7. Both incidents involved Canadian National trains.