Derailment set to fuel push for crude volatility mandates

WASHINGTON — The fiery derailment of an oil train in Illinois on Thursday is likely to bolster a campaign for energy companies to strip combustible gases out of the crude they ship by rail.

Emergency workers were still working Friday to contain the blaze at the latest accident near Galena, Ill., on Friday — the third derailment of oil cars in as many weeks. BNSF Railway said 21 of the 105 cars on the train (all but two carrying oil) left the tracks.

Like a Feb. 16 derailment in West Virginia, Thursday’s accident involved newer-model tank cars designed to be more resilient in crashes.

Read more: West Virginia train derailment puts focus on rail safety

It also was carrying the same kind of crude: oil extracted from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, that is believed to contain a relatively high amount of volatile gases. Federal regulators in 2014 called Bakken oil “more volatile than most other types of crude.”

North Dakota regulations, adopted in December and set to go into effect next month, would require oil producers to stabilize their crude, heating it to remove some of that excess gas and lower its vapor pressure to 13.7 pounds per square inch.

But there is no national standard — and some lawmakers have questioned whether North Dakota’s 13.7 psi threshold is too high. It exceeds the top vapor pressure of gasoline (13.5 psi) as well as that of the crude involved in the lethal Lac-Megantic explosion in Quebec two years ago.

“Given the oil industry’s influence in North Dakota, their standard may not be good enough,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters this week.

Schumer has called on the Energy and Transportation departments to collaborate on “new regulations that would require the stabilization of crude oil prior to shipment.”

Read more: Senator wants tougher rules for volatile oil

The volatility and stabilization of oil is not expected to be addressed in a forthcoming federal rule expected to require more resilient tank cars, speed limits and better braking systems for trains heaving highly hazardous material, including crude and ethanol.

Some lawmakers have complained that Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration rule is already moving on a too-slow track. At a hearing last month, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., blamed regulators’ decision to combine more complex operational mandates with the tank car standards in a single proposal.

“They have managed to mangle the rule by merging it together with operational issues that are much more difficult,” he said.

Adding in volatility may have further bogged that measure down.

“We don’t want to slow down the tank car provisions,” Schumer said, acknowledging “this is going to take a while; this is going to take some real study.”

“We are going to be up against powerful wealthy interests.” Schumer added. “The oil companies don’t want any expense added to their business, but I remind them their business is new and hugely profitable. The oil companies will want the status quo maintained, but the state of derailments and the frequency of fiery explosions have made crystal clear to everyone that the risks are still too high.”

Oil industry representatives insist that Bakken crude is no more volatile than other domestic oil.

The American Petroleum Institute cites “multiple scientific studies by government and industry (that) have shown Bakken crude does not present greater than normal transportation risks for flammable liquids.”

With relatively few pipelines snaking out of the Bakken, much of that crude is transported by truck and rail to refineries across North America. About two-thirds of the oil extracted in North Dakota is ferried to refineries via rail lines.