Friday, May 2, 2014

Get it Through Your Heads: U.S. Crude Oil is Explosive

   The latest derailment of a train carrying crude oil -- which exploded violently and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia -- proves yet again that U.S. crude is no average oil. 
   On the whole, crude oil does not explode, nor does it easily catch fire. But newer sources of American crude, particularly from the Bakken field in North Dakota, are proving to be an unwelcome anomaly. 
   Crude oil coming from the Bakken, and also Eagle Ford in Texas, is of high quality. It is very low in density and sulfur. But that does not necessarily make it explosive. 
   After the crash and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last year, I urged reporters at Platts (where I was an editor) to dig deep and find the specifications for Bakken from their sources. None of their sources would release any but the most rudimentary of specs. 
   Then analysis done by the Wall Street Journal showed that Bakken crude has an unusually high Reid Vapor Pressure, which is a measurement of volatility. As there are no laws mandating RVP tests for crude, the combustible nature of Bakken and Eagle Ford was largely ignored. Regulators were slow off the mark to test the quality of the oil being shipped by rail. Oil producers and refiners -- in their haste to sell and refine these cheap feedstocks -- often misclassified them as less hazardous than they really were. 
   Because the infrastructure supporting oil transportation in the U.S. is sorely substandard, with barges and existing pipelines overbooked (and proposed new pipelines like Keystone XL unlikely to be built), the U.S. and Canada too quickly embraced moving crude by rail car. They neglected to test crude quality from newer U.S. fields and failed to strengthen safety regulations until after several fiery crashes. They allowed inferior quality rail cars known as DOT 111s to continue to be used, even as they proved themselves to be very good moving firebombs. 
   Now, however, responsible producers and users are beginning to take steps of their own to try and prevent further accidents, and avoid the wrath of the law and punishing insurance claims. Canada will phase out the older cars by 2017. U.S. oil distribution company Global Partners just announced that it would immediately switch to newer specification tank cars called CPC 1232, trying to head off New York Governor Cuomo's move to slow down a Global oil by rail development in Albany. 
   Oil producers, gatherers, traders and end users surely knew the kind of oil they were dealing with, yet they put it onto rail cars that were not fit for the task. The sooner DOT 111s stop carrying oil the better. And the sooner railway operators and regulators get a grip on crude oil, its specifications and flammability, the sooner these accidents will stop happening.