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Study shows Bakken crude fits safety standards for current rail cars

05.15.2014  | 

In particular, Bakken crudes are well within the regulatory limits for pressure, flashpoint, boiling point and corrosivity for use in Department of Transportation (DOT) approved railcars.


The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) trade group released findings on Thursday from a new and comprehensive report that examines the characteristics of Bakken crude oil and the standards required to transport by rail.

The report results demonstrate that Bakken crude is well within the safety standards for current rail car designs. More specifically, Bakken crude is comparable to other light crudes and does not pose risks that are significantly different than other crudes or flammable liquids authorized for rail transport. 

In particular, Bakken crudes are well within the regulatory limits for pressure, flashpoint, boiling point and corrosivity for use in Department of Transportation (DOT) approved rail cars.

AFPM says the data shows that the current classification of Bakken crude oil is accurate and appropriate. Bakken crude oil is designated as a flammable liquid under the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) and as such, is subject to evaluation of its flashpoint and initial boiling point for classification purposes. 

While Bakken crude and other light crudes may contain higher amounts of dissolved flammable gases compared to some heavy crude oils, the percentage of dissolved gases would not cause Bakken crude to be transported under a DOT hazard class other than Class 3 Flammable Liquid. Therefore, there is no need to create a new DOT classification for crude oil transportation, AFPM says.

The maximum vapor pressure observed based on data collected was 61% below the vapor pressure threshold limit for liquids under the HMR; demonstrating that Bakken crude oil is properly classified as a flammable liquid. Further, the highest reported value was more than 90% below the maximum pressure that DOT-111 rail cars were built to withstand.  

“The United States is very fortunate to be experiencing an increase in domestic energy production and, as a result, more crude oil is being shipped by rail. Although, the transportation of crude oil by rail is extremely safe, we strive to make continuous improvements and work toward a zero incident rate,” said AFPM president Charles T. Drevna.

Given the increase in rail transportation of crude oil, particularly coming out of the Bakken region, questions have been raised about the characteristics of Bakken crude oil compared to oils from other areas, rail car standards and rail infrastructure and operations. 

“This report was aimed at specifically addressing the characteristics of Bakken crude and concludes that its characteristics are no different than other light crude oils,” Drevna said. “We believe this data will help better inform the government as it reviews all aspects of the safe transportation of crude by rail.”

The report is based on a survey of AFPM members conducted in response to information requested by the Department of Transportation. In a letter to Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) sent in late February, AFPM confirmed that the process was underway to obtain the data necessary to inform future regulatory actions. 

AFPM members were surveyed to determine whether Bakken crude oil poses substantially different transportation risks compared to other crude oils transported by rail. In addressing concerns raised by the DOT, data was collected stemming from an analysis of approximately 1,400 samples of Bakken crude oil in order to better understand its properties.

“Rail safety is a shared responsibility and AFPM and our members are committed to doing our part," said Drevna. "But, new specifications must be based in data showing the benefits are real and that the new design will not adversely impact our ability to provide the fuels and other products Americans depend on every day."

In accordance with antitrust laws, the survey was conducted and assembled by a third-party auditor to collect the data on a confidential basis from 17 member companies. AFPM engaged a former, long-time DOT official with an expertise in hazardous material transportation safety to develop the final report.

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Ok, so Bakken crude meets the standards set for DOT 111s, that's part of the equation. Another huge part of the equation is: are the standards that are set for the DOT 111s appropriate for the design and condition of the equipment? Something is wrong or we wouldn't be seeing the number and severity of rail-transported crude accidents that have occurred in the last couple of years. Something needs to change. The current safety record of transporting crude by rail is unacceptable.

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