Federal regulators check Eagle Ford oil flammability

After warning this month that crude oil from a booming shale field in North Dakota may be particularly flammable, federal regulators are testing oil from the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas.

A series of high-profile derailments and explosive fires of train cars carrying oil out of North Dakota’s Bakken Shale has drawn scrutiny to transporting crude by rail — a practice that has skyrocketed with the boom in domestic oil production.

Although the focus has been on Bakken crude, wells in both the Bakken and the Eagle Ford produce light, sweet crude along with liquid gases such as propane and butane. The U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recently took samples of Eagle Ford crude.

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Agency spokesman Gordon “Joe” Delcambre Jr. said the final report on the samples is pending. The agency hasn’t yet taken or tested samples from the Permian Basin in West Texas, another field producing light, sweet crude.

The agency is looking at the characteristics of oil from various fields and has said Bakken crude “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.” It called on companies to make sure such oil is appropriately labeled and to take steps to reduce risks of transporting more volatile types of oil.

Light, sweet crude — the terms refer to its low density and sulfur content — generally has more lighter hydrocarbons than heavy crude. That means it’s more flammable and vaporizes more easily, said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a University of Houston professor of chemical, biomolecular and petroleum engineering.

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The issue is complex because even wells in the same field can produce different mixes of oil and gas, and the characteristics of a well’s production change over time, Krishnamoorti said.

Texas is far less reliant than North Dakota on trains for moving crude to refineries. The state has  hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines, with more under construction.

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