Now I’m more scared of oil trains than I was from the original story

February 25, 2015

Dear Zenith News:

Very informative article on Bakken crude shipping by rail [“Bakken Burning,” January 13, 2015]. But the last sentence—“The amount of crude exported by the U.S. set a new record in November, becoming the 17th-largest oil exporter in the world, according to Bloomberg News”—has to be clarified.

It is still illegal to export US produced crude oil, and well it should be. The US exports other nations’ crude oil, mainly from Canada. North Dakota crude cannot be exported, but we do export millions of tons of finished product, such as gasoline, diesel oil, and other petroleum products, made from Bakken crude oil.

Another thing must be clarified: Crude oil does not explode; it barely burns. Right out of the pump, it looks like a chocolate malt, and contains water and dissolved natural gas. It is carbonated with explosive natural gas. If the shippers would remove the natural gas through a process similar to removing carbonation from a beverage, most of the explosive nature of the product would be removed.

Guy Wolf, organizer of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, states, “Almost all the [rail safety] review is done from computerized instrumentation that happens on top of the tracks, not below the tracks, not looking at the structures themselves.” This leads someone to believe bridges are also checked from the top.

Track rail is done by very sophisticated rail-mounted inspection equipment. This equipment could have been seen around the Duluth area last summer. I found the crew and talked with them for quite a while. Bridges and crossings are inspected by separate crews and from the ground! The rail companies in our area are extremely conscious of the condition and safety of their road bed. It is counterintuitive to think otherwise.

Disclaimer: I have never worked for any railroad or pipeline company. I have no vested interest in the companies. I have worked as hired construction labor for both, which is where I gained my knowledge of their operation. I have no personal interest in the area’s railroads—no children or relatives involved with the companies. In fact, I have a B.S. Degree 1976 in environmental biology. I consider myself a environmentalist, but until we have created substitutes for our carbon-based petroleum economy, stopping the transportation of crude oil will not help anyone. If there is a market, the crude oil will be sold.

Bryce Makela


Carl Lemke Oliver Sack replies: This letter raises some good questions. However, some of the writer’s information appears to be outdated. I will respond to each of the writer’s points in order.

The U.S. crude oil export ban dates to 1975, when it was put in place as a response to the OPEC oil embargo. “Ban” is somewhat of a misnomer; the policy requires a license to export crude oil, but has never completely forbid the export of all U.S. crude (it grants automatic licenses for certain crude from Alaska and California, exports to Canada for consumption there, and other exports specified by international accords).

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, crude oil exports rose by 136 percent, or $7 billion, between 2013 and 2014, accounting for “the largest export increase of any single category.” After months of lobbying by the oil industry, on December 30, 2014, the Commerce Department relaxed the export ban and began allowing all shipments of domestically produced condensate, or ultra-light crude oil. The industry continues to push for a complete removal of the ban.

In regards to the explosiveness of crude oil, an important theme of my article was the difference between traditional crude oil, tar sands heavy crude, and Bakken shale oil. Traditional crude ranges from light to heavy, but is generally less volatile than Bakken oil. Bitumen from Canadian tar sands, which accounts for most of what comes through the Twin Ports, is very heavy but poses a higher rupture risk for pipelines as it is thick and pumped through the lines under high pressure. It is also not immune to rail explosions, as demonstrated by a February 14 accident near Timmins, Ontario.

Oil from the Bakken shale formation is very light and much more volatile than other types of oil. A 2014 study conducted by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers found that Bakken crude has an average Reid Vapor Pressure of eight pounds per square inch (psi) in warm weather and 12.5 psi in colder weather, with the highest sample scoring 15.5 psi. By comparison, crude oil from the Gulf of Mexico averages 3.3 psi. Bakken crude does not look like chocolate malt. It can often be burned like gasoline straight from the ground, and the flow rate may be too fast to separate volatile gasses before shipping even if drillers were required to do so, which they are not.

To the point about bridge inspection, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rules mandate annual bridge inspections, but do not specify the type of inspections that are to be done on each bridge. The rules state that inspection procedures are specified by a bridge engineer based on the type of bridge, conditions found during prior inspections, the nature of rail traffic moving over the bridge, and the bridge’s vulnerability to damage. Thus, they may vary from place to place. I agree with the writer that it is in the railroads’ best interest to ensure the safety of their bridges; Dave Simon of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation makes this point in the article.

As I write this, cleanup is beginning at the site of the latest oil train explosion along the Kanawah River in West Virginia. A 109-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed on February 16, burning down a house, contaminating the local water supply, and prompting the evacuation of two towns. Two days earlier, a train carrying tar sands crude derailed and exploded in the woods of northern Ontario. Both explosions involved new tank cars constructed under the industry’s updated safety standards.


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