Monday Reads: Tar Sands Inferno

Canada-Oil Train DerailmentGood Morning!

I’ve been reading a lot about the incredible number of fiery explosions of oil cars carrying tar sands oil.  Rachel Maddow covered the recent explosions in West Virginia last week which got me started on a series of articles leaving me highly concerned.  You see, I live within less than a block of freight trains that carry the stuff.  Why are these things blowing up like huge bombs?  The answer will both concern you and make you very mad.  Here’s the background of the North American “bomb trains”.

So, let me start with the Maddow show investigations and move on until we get to the movement of these tank cars on my street.  The latest explosion happened in Mount Carbon, West Virginia one week ago today. The explosion sent tankers filled with Bakken Tar Sands Oil into a nearby river.  The link above will show the report on that derailment and the horrifying images of the inferno that followed.

This links to the report that grabbed my attention last Tuesday.  It is 20 minutes long and explains why these derailments and explosions are occurring frequently and with such horrifying results.   I learned about conditioning of crude oil from this broadcast.

Transporting oil involves more than just safe train cars or even pipelines. The Bakken Tar Sands Oil is not being conditioned which is leaving extremely volatile and flammable components. These components create the mixture causing the bomb trains that transport right through towns, cities,  and neighborhoods like mine.  Texas law forces Texas oil to be fully conditioned prior to transportation.  North Dakota law does not and the Tar Sands Oil is particularly nasty stuff.  North Dakota has now initiated a cleansing process which is a weaker version of conditioning.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that Texas actually has tough regulations on this.  That says something to me.  North Dakota has some ‘splaining to do.

While the investigation continues into Monday’s massive explosion of Bakken crude oil tankers after a train derailment in West Virginia, a spokesperson for the Department of Mineral Resources says proper conditioning of the oil is just one of four pieces needed to ensure transport safety.

Alison Ritter said the State Industrial Commission’s oil conditioning order, effective April 1, sets a standard of certainty for the design of safe railcars.

“This is where we believe North Dakota fits into the solution of making oil as safe as possible for transport,” Ritter said.

However, she said the Federal Railroad Administration is responsible for unit train routing, speed limits, brakes and track maintenance, as well as notification of state emergency responders. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is responsible for overseeing how crude is labeled and tanker car design, and it and states are responsible for funding and training emergency responders, she said.

CSX Transport says the Bakken oil tankers that exploded this week were built to the higher safety standards.

The Dakota Resource Council continued its attack on state officials Wednesday, saying the new oil conditioning order for Bakken oil falls far short of what’s needed.

The order requires oil producers to reduce volatile gases in the oil to reach a maximum pressure of 13.7 pounds per square inch.

The DRC and others point out that the Bakken oil involved in a derailment explosion that killed 52 people in Quebec in 2013 was even lower, at 9.3 psi.

“We can and should do better,” the organization said in a statement Wednesday. The organization had pressed the Industrial Commission to require that the oil be stabilized to remove more of the gases.

Bakken crude has been involved in six train explosions since 2008, including one outside Casselton 14 months ago.

Again that latest explosion in West Virginia was a week ago today.  Just imagine massive fireballs, explosions, and evacuations in your town anywhere near a cross country railroad line.  There are some ongoing efforts to redesign old tankers in Canada.  It hasn’t gained a lot of traction here.6a00e5500ce6be883401127966322a28a4

Bakken crude is regarded as potentially more flammable than traditional crude, thus posing an increased hazard. And since the derailment of a train hauling Bakken crude killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, the type of tankers involved in these accidents has become the subject of intense scrutiny. Both Canada and the United States have called for tougher safety standards, including upgrading the tankers. In mid-January, Canada announced it would take older tankers, known as the “DOT-111”, off the network years sooner than the United States will, putting the two countries at odds over increased safety measures on the deeply integrated system

The Mother Jones article cited above also links to an in-depth study about both the controversy and the problems with relying on making changes to the cars alone.  The problem, it seems, is more with the Bakken crude and nothing much is being done about that.  Well, it’s going to be “cleansed” starting in April.  However, that’s not the same as the conditioning process as mentioned in the link above.   Oil extractors are not happy with this at all and it’s not even the full out recommended conditioning.  (This link studies the impact from the Oil extractor viewpoint.)

The “commission order was written as a matter of safety,” the NDIC said in an executive summary of the regulation. “Rail accidents across the country have drawn attention for the need to better understand how Bakken oil is produced and processed at the well site.”

The regulation requires all crude produced in North Dakota to have a vapor pressure of no more than 13.7 pounds per square inch. “National standards recognize oil with a vapor pressure of 14.7 psi or less to be stable,” according to the summary, which said that winter blend gasoline has a vapor pressure of 13.5 psi. “Under the order, all Bakken crude oil produced in North Dakota will be conditioned with no exceptions,” the NDIC said in a statement.

The regulation will make waves from the wellhead to the rail terminal to the refinery, and possibly down the train tracks. It’s unknown how the conditioning of Bakken crude could affect the terms of forthcoming new tank-car safety standards, meant to protect against volatile crude shipments. But certainly, many industry participants will take on the daunting task of first conditioning the North Dakota crude and then moving out the associated NGLs into a market already flush with ethane, butane, and propane, sources said.

"Some Like It Hot"North Dakota is not making many friends with its neighboring states as witnessed in this NPR program quoting the Governor of Minnesota who worries about the impact of explosions in the much more populated state.

In neighboring Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton “is concerned primarily about the safety of people along oil train routes, and in particular about the fact that this is a very volatile oil,” says Dave Christianson, an official with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Dayton has joined activists in asking North Dakota to force oil companies to “stabilize” the oil — to make it less explosive by separating out the flammable liquids.

Last month, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple convened a public hearing on the idea. Keith Lilie, an operations and maintenance manager for Statoil, which has a big presence in the Bakken, testified in front of a room full of oilmen in suits and cowboy boots who came to the hearing from places like Oklahoma City and Houston.

Lilie said he opposes having to build expensive tanks to heat the oil and separate out flammable liquids, like butane.

“Statoil believes the current conditioning of crude oil is sufficient for safely transporting Bakken crude oil by truck, rail and pipeline,” he said.

Eric Bayes, general manager of Oasis Petroleum’s operations in the Bakken, also testified. He asked what companies are supposed to do with those explosive liquids once they’re separated from the oil.

The stabilization process, he says, would “create another product stream you have no infrastructure in place for.”

But energy economist Philip Verleger, says the resistance is about money. “The industry never wants to take steps which increase the cost of production, even if it’s in the best interests of everybody,” he says.

Verleger says the opposition to proposed safety rules is short-sighted, and that the industry could actually hurt itself if there’s another serious incident. “I think the movement of crude oil by rail is one accident away from being terminated,” Verleger says.

Activist Lynn Wolff supports new rules that would make the oil less explosive, and says such regulation would protect people beyond North Dakota. “These bomb trains have been in Virginia and Alabama and blown up there as well,” he says.

So, while reading about these “bomb trains” –which certainly sound to me like a huge disaster in the making–I stumbled into an article that shows the little darlings cross my street just 5 buildings down from my house.  Imagine the look of horror on my face.  Also, let me tell you, those trains actually derail quite a bit since the infrastructure here really really really sucks.  Officials are actually thinking about what would happen if the things derail in the French Quarter which is just one mile up the street from me.53daa8056dec627b149f9777_vintage-train-travel-8

City of New Orleans and state emergency officials said Friday (Feb. 20) they are prepared to implement an emergency evacuation of the French Quarter or other parts of the city in the event of a catastrophic crude oil derailment accident, such as the event that engulfed parts of Adena Village, W. Va., in pillars of flame on Monday.

But city officials said Friday those evacuation plans are not releasable under federal law, and declined to explain any details of how city, state and federal agencies would work together to respond to a catastrophic accident.

“The city’s evacuation plan is considered security sensitive as it lists critical routes, critical infrastructure and key resources,” said Bradley Howard, press secretary to Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

So, great they have a plan but they refuse to tell us about it. My plan is to suggest the girls take out life insurance on me and the pets.

The West Virginia accident involved a 109-tank car shipment of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota that was on its way to a shipping facility in Jamestown, Va. It was one of three such derailments within the past week, and involved new, supposedly safer tank cars that were supposed to have withstood the rupture and fire incident that occurred, said Fred Millar, an independent transportation safety expert based in Washington, D.C.

Millar called the older rail cars, many of which are used to ship oil through Louisiana, as “Pepsi cans on wheels” that should be expected to lose their contents whenever they derail.

Millar pointed to an accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013, as an example of a worst-case incident that New Orleans should be prepared for. In that accident, poor maintenance, driver error, flawed operating procedures, and lack of safety redundancy resulted in a fiery derailment in the middle of the town that killed 47 and destroyed more than 30 buildings.

He said a key concern is that when tank cars are punctured, the released oil pours downhill through streets and into sewers and storm drains, creating a river of fire, if a spark sets the fuel alight.

The Gulf Gateway Terminal, located off Almonaster Boulevard on the northern side of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and about a half-mile north of the Lower 9th Ward, can load 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day from tank cars onto barges and ships. The oil is delivered from a variety of northwestern locations to New Orleans, including the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and oil tar sands fields in Canada, and the tank cars are moved into New Orleans through Uptown and the French Quarter by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and the Public Belt Rail Road.

In New Orleans, dozens of tank cars are being moved by rail by the New Orleans Public Belt railroad and by BNSF Railway to the Gulf Gateway Terminal on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, where more than 100,000 barrels of crude can be transferred from the cars to barges and ships each day.

The tank cars take a circuitous route through the New Orleans area to get there, often traveling by Public Belt tracks along the river through Old Jefferson to Uptown and then through the French Quarter.

Along the way, the rail cars pass within a block or two of  New Orleans Children’s Hospital, and between the Riverwalk shopping mall and the Ernest Morial Convention Center.

A recent photo of the Gulf Gateway Terminal on the company’s web site shows more than 500 oil rail cars adjacent to a transport dock, which is on the north side of the waterway off Almonaster Boulevard, and about a half-mile north of the Lower 9thWard.

Each tank car averages 30,000 gallons of crude oil, and if all the cars were full, that would mean 15 million gallons of oil were stored at the terminal after having been moved through the French Quarter.

0924411fbb2a4090594e5e28c0d164d9Just to give you a great little visual, the train and the cars go within blocks of the Children’s Hospital.  Doesn’t that make you feel just wonderful?  And these oil and gas guys are worried about their profit margins and saturating the already saturated damn NGL markets?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sleeping very well these days.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?  You can post anything even though I basically covered one topic.  I just had to get the information out.  I hope you find it useful and horrifying.


16 Comments on “Monday Reads: Tar Sands Inferno”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Here’s a little good news to start the day–for us caffeine addicts anyway.

    Wonkblog: It’s official: Americans should drink more coffee

    When the nation’s top nutrition panel released its latest dietary recommendations on Thursday, the group did something it had never done before: weigh in on whether people should be drinking coffee. What it had to say is pretty surprising.

    Not only can people stop worrying about whether drinking coffee is bad for them, according to the panel, they might even want to consider drinking a bit more.

    The panel cited minimal health risks associated with drinking between three and five cups per day. It also said that consuming as many as five cups of coffee each day (400 mg) is tied to several health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

    “We saw that coffee has a lot of health benefits,” said Miriam Nelson, a professor at Tufts University and one of the committee’s members. “Specifically when you’re drinking more than a couple cups per day.”

  2. Riverbird says:

    Thank you, dakinikat. I learned a lot from your post.

    • dakinikat says:

      Thx! I knew it’s important subject area and I also don’t want this to turn into an excuse to pass that damned Keystone pipeline because it’s really the Tar Sands oil that’s the issue. It’s dirty and volatile.

      • janicen says:

        This is a great post, dak. I had no idea there was such a thing as conditioning oil prior to transportation of it until I read this post. still have more links to cover but this is jaw dropping stuff.

  3. So Dak, which came first with regard to West Virginia last week, the puncture/explosion or the derailment? Seems to me that this is such a dangerous cargo, do we know if it will just cause the cars to explode under pressure from the simple shaking and jostling that the cars experience along the railway? Like a coke can shook up and then pops it top. The cars don’t need to have a puncture, the pressure just burst through the opening of the container, or these cars bust a seam. This is scary shit.

  4. ANonOMouse says:

    Just wondering, how do you find out which tanker cars are carrying this dangerous crude and which aren’t? I live within a mile of a rail line where tanker cars travel daily. I know that there are a lot of dangerous chemicals in those tankers, but how do we know how volatile the cargo is and how much at risk our communities are?

  5. bostonboomer says:

    This makes no sense to me. Since the trains are crossing state lines, it should be up to the federal government to impose regulations. Why aren’t lobbying efforts being directed toward federal agencies?