Trains Carrying Oil Keep Exploding, but Will the Energy Lobby Allow More Regulation?

Categories: Transportation

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Freight trains are the little engine that could of the transportation industry -- really janky-looking and slow, but resolutely refusing to die. In fact, the freight train industry is doing better than ever in states sitting on top of shale, enjoying a massive increase in business thanks to fracking. There are over 10,000 miles of railroad tracks across Texas, more than any other state, and the tracks are carrying more and more tanks of crude oil every day. The state-owned South Orient Rail line saw a 2,214 percent increase in crude oil car shipments between 2011 and 2012.

One minor hiccup: The trains keep exploding.

The latest near-disaster happened on December 30, courtesy of Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company. A BNSF train carrying grain collided with a mile-long BNSF train carrying crude oil. The oil train derailed and a massive fire followed. Nearby, in Caddelton, North Dakota, more than 2,000 residents were told to evacuate. No one was hurt.

BNSF declined to comment, citing a federal investigation. Shortly before the accident BNSF's executive chairman bragged to the Dallas Business Journal that the company expects to be hauling 1 million barrels of crude oil per day by the end of 2014. It's already hauling 750,000 barrels, with stops at the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the Permian Basin in West Texas.

The recent derailment follows a few other fiery crashes that made the news last year. The most devastating one happened in July, when an unattended train full of crude oil fell off the tracks, exploding in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic. Forty-seven people were killed, and the city's downtown was flattened.

"When an accident happens, the odds of that accident becoming a disaster increase dramatically" on long trains carrying crude oil, says Anthony Swift, an attorney at the National Resources Defense Council.

It's not just environmentalists pushing for extra caution in shipping oil by rail. In November, the Association of American Railroads pressed the U.S. Department of Transportation to improve its tank car regulations. The trade group, which represents the freight train industry, said the majority of tank cars carrying flammable liquids are too old, and asked the transportation department to phase the tank cars out for newer models.

"We believe it's time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids, particularly considering the recent increase in crude oil traffic," AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger said in a statement at the time.

The Railway Supply Institute Committee on Tank Cars made a similar request of the U.S. Department of Transportation in December.

But regulators dragged their feet, and the industries that own those cars aren't too keen on extra regulation. The tank cars themselves belong to the people who profit off of the flammable stuff, such as the oil industry and the chemical industry. And they've generally been resistant to the idea of retrofitting old cars. (At one recent hearing, Dow Chemical, which spends millions lobbying Congress, reportedly contended that retrofitting its cars was "impractical if not impossible.")

More recently, the oil industry has dismissed the North Dakota crash as the inevitable result of an increase in business. The answer, they said, is to build more oil pipelines.

"Trains need to be a supplement, not a replacement" for pipelines, Michael Whatley, executive vice president of Consumer Energy Alliance, told Bloomberg News in response to the crash.

Yet pipelines, which come with their own safety risks, don't seem to be overtaking railroads in popularity anytime soon.

In October of 2012, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, the biggest pipeline operator in the country, announced plans to build a 740-mile pipeline from West Texas oil fields to a California refinery. The project never happened. Kinder Morgan canceled it because it turned out that the oil companies that would have used the pipeline were perfectly happy with the train.

Perhaps rail won't be so popular anymore when word gets around that the feds may soon be cracking down on old freight cars. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that federal investigators are finally looking into why crude-oil-filled trains keep exploding.


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45 comments
Schultzy
Schultzy

As others noted, anhydrous ammonia is probably the most widely used agricultural fertilizer in the US.  Virtually every farm in the US midwest has large storage tanks of anhydrous ammonia, it is often shipped by rail tankers, and there are extensive pipelines across the country for transporting it.  It is useful as a fertilizer because it provides an easily absorbed source of nitrogen.

When ammonia is used as a fuel in a combustion engine, only the hydrogen participates in the combustion process.  The nitrogen portion of the ammonia fuel mostly turns into inert N2, while a small amount may be converted into NOx if the combustion temps are high enough.

schulytzy @  http://www.greatbasinindustrial.com/


holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

Unfortunately, the regulatory agencies have been populated with activists resulting in partisan attacks from those who report to the Executive Branch (IRS, for instance).  You can't trust government right now to uphold the rule of law.  They make law.  Worse, they phony up their data, employ goofy criteria, then employ the force of law to direct the people (HUD - Dispirit Impact).  It is politicized, and government right now does not like fossil fuels.

While this phenomenon has been around since humans formed governments, today the Leviathan appears to be integrated (networked).  Maybe once oil execs were put in control of agencies who regulated the energy industry but today, it's different.

You can be an individual political activist and multiple agencies will come after you.  The citizen can object in one area of governance and be attacked by four other agencies.

Notice those who don't like pipelines or trains (or Republicans) for transport use government action and their statistics for political points.  

It's gone beyond the old bromide that you can't trust government.

Today, whether you are an individual, group or business Big Government perceives you as a threat if you attempt to limit its size.  And it will act to protect itself.

But they got prosecutorial discretion.

Putin recently said he couldn't get away with the stuff the President is pulling right now.

And I can see his point.

Odd that the Dallas Observer, of all rags, can't.

pak152
pak152

"The trains keep exploding." okay one in ND and one in Canada what other exploding trains were there in the past two years?

Mervis_Earl
Mervis_Earl

"Freight trains are the little engine that could of the transportation industry"

So trains are trains. Got it.

roo_ster
roo_ster

Personally, I wish we would switch to a bulk transport system that relied on faeries and good intentions, instead of rail roads and pipelines, because faerie ferries have a perfect safety record. 

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

Why is it reporters can take on almost any topic and handle it competently, but instantly reveal their ignorance  when it comes to railroads and railroading? Is it that, in this age of whiz-bang technology, established technology eludes them?

To begin with, please note that it is the industry itself that is clamoring for more regulation, not just outsiders.How often does THAT happen?

Second, it is not just crude that has been driving the incredible renaissance of the rail industry. Crude is late to the party, one reason the railroads were caught with an aging tank car fleet and are scrambling to catch up. Railroads resurgence dates from the 1970s and a revolution in management and technology that started with containerization and unit trains, notably grain and coal. Today's "janky-looking and slow" freights deliver more tonnage faster -- and probably more safely -- than they did in World War II.

Of course there are more instances of trains of crude exploding. That's because a few years ago, there were almost no trains of crude, just a few tank cars here and there scattered among the general traffic. Now unit trains of crude 're all over the place. 

The troubles with pipelines is that they deliver one thing -- oil -- from point A to point B. And they're underground, out of sight. When something goes wrong, you can't see it until it's too late. Rail lines are inspected constantly. And a railroad line can transport anything anywhere, from crude oil to jellybeans.

       

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

From what I understand, crude oil typically isn't as combustable as has occured in the recent railcar explosions .

two things seem to be at cause: first, the crude coming out of N. Dakota appears to have (for lack of a better word) contaminants that make it more prone ot igniting, and second there is a shortage/high demand for the type of railcar that should be used for crude transport, so railcars that shouldn't be used for transporting crude are being used.

so, step up oversight to stop the use of inappropriate railcars being used to transport the crude, make the fines huge so the risk of being caught is too large.

until there is sufficient understanding of why the Bakken crude is exploding stop its transport by rail, or allow its use of rail only outside of populated areas.

the last thing we want is for the oil and railroad industry to be put in charge of policing itself, the past has shown this will not result in adequate actions being taken.

ruddski
ruddski

If more regulation leads to much safer transport, like double-hulled ships, I don't see a problem.

I'd like to see Bigass Oil take the initiative though, not the government, it'll cost us less.

TheOneandOnly
TheOneandOnly

"The trains keep exploding."

And you listed two rail accidents, neither of which really provides authority for your headline, do they? One was a collision, the other a derailment.  Are rail cars carrying Evil petroleum products somehow more likely to fall victim to common rail-transportation mishaps, or is something else going on, like rising traffic on particular rail lines increases the statistical probabilities of mishap generally? Given your supporting evidence, a better headline might be "Some things happened, there is a tangential connection to an energy source I am philosophically opposed to, so here's some politically biased correlation  masquerading as journalism."

roo_ster
roo_ster

@holmantx"

Putin recently said he couldn't get away with the stuff the President is pulling right now.

And I can see his point.

Odd that the Dallas Observer, of all rags, can't."

Oh, they see the point and like where it is pointing.  They just do not realize that when their political adversaries once again gain power that the point will be pointing at them.

pak152
pak152

@bmarvel'The troubles with pipelines is that they deliver one thing -- oil -- from point A to point B. And they're underground, out of sight. When something goes wrong, you can't see it until it's too late." 

actually pipelines deliver more than just oil, they deliver water, gasoline, natural gas to name just a few.
pipelines are also regularly inspected. 

"Safe Pipelines FAQs Questions and answers about the safety of our Nation's pipelines."

http://phmsa.dot.gov/portal/site/PHMSA/menuitem.ebdc7a8a7e39f2e55cf2031050248a0c/?vgnextoid=2c6924cc45ea4110VgnVCM1000009ed07898RCRD&vgnextchannel=f7280665b91ac010VgnVCM1000008049a8c0RCRD&vgnextfmt=print

from the above
"

  1. How does a pipeline operator determine if a leak or rupture has occurred?

    Many leak detection systems and methods are used in the operation of pipelines, and, generally, a single pipeline will employ several of these. For example, sensitive instruments are monitored to detect conditions such as a drop in pressure or a change in the flow rate that might indicate a rupture. Also, lines are frequently inspected on foot, by car, or from aircraft.

    Leaks rarely occur but many that do are the result of damage caused by someone digging near the pipeline. Most of these damages can be prevented by notifying the pipeline operator or by calling the national 8-1-1 one-call system before beginning an excavation to determine the location of nearby pipelines. The pipeline operator will determine and mark the specific location of the pipeline relative to the location of the planned excavation.  Remember, there may be numerous pipelines in the vicinity of a pipeline marker at different depths."

"Pipeline leak detection includes hydrostatic test after pipeline erection and leak detection during service. This article mainly refers to in-service leak detection."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leak_detection
List of oil spills
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oil_spills

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

By the way,the tragic derailment in Lac-Megantic was due to a neglectful crewman operating under Canadian regulations. The single crewman failed to secure a train standing on a downgrade. Under U.S. regulations  (U.S. trains have at least two) that would not have happened. 

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@mavdog 

The crude coming from the Bakken area is a very light crude ranging from 36 to 44 degrees API.

Crude oils varying in gravity from 6 (low gravity, a very heavy, tar like crude) to 20 (medium gravity, not very volatile) to 40 (high gravity, very volatile).  Some gas wells produce a condensate in the 45 to 55 gravity range.  This condensate is extremely volatile and often requires pressurized storage and processing in order to make it transportable.

Each barrel of crude, similar to the Bakken crude, produces a large proportion of kerosenes (jet fuels), diesel fuel and straight run gasoline without much processing past distillation.  This is the value in crudes such as this.


By comparison, West Texas Intermediate, the so called benchmark crude, also has a gravity of 40.


hth

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ruddski There is a double-hulled railroad tank car currently under development for transporting crude.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ruddskiIt won't happen until bigass oil is forced to act by government. THAT, ruddsski, is why the Association of American Railroads is asking for increased regulation. The tank cars, being highly specialized, are owned by the bigass oil companies, for the most part, not the railroads.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@ruddski ha, they dont want to upgrade current haulers, much less invest in new ones, so it looks like the gubmint gonna have to make em do it.  

James_the_P3
James_the_P3

@TheOneandOnlySo the rail companies are going to be hauling 1,000,000 barrels of crude a day, and Ms. Silverstein can point to two incidents (not even explosions, mind you) over the past year, and from that she concludes that "trains carrying oil keep exploding"?


The talk of intoxicated megafauna is more enlightening than anything in Ms. Silverstein's piece.

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

In fairness to the author, her editor most likely wrote the headline.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@TheOneandOnly they dont want pipelines and now they want to rail against trains.  Just how the fuck do we want our oil transported, bc the shit isn't just going to disappear from use.

roo_ster
roo_ster

@lolotehe@roo_sterYes, but do not forget the good intentions.  The good intentions make up for any inefficiencies and/or lack of performance.  (Also, for when all the green initiative federal dollars go down the faerie crapper and the taxpayer is left with nothing but pixie dust and good intentions.)

I will again reiterate the perfect safety record faerie ferries.  No other current mode of transport can make such a claim!

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@mcdallas@bmarvelJellybeans, like coal and iron ore and such, must be crushed and mixed into a slurry first before they can be transported in a pipeline. You'd be much happier with jellybeans that arrived by train.

ruddski
ruddski

Was this development driven by regulation?

pak152
pak152

@bmarvel@ruddski  

"Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/A) owns Union Tank Car, just one piece of his big bet on rail, which also includes the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad."
http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-11-14/2014-outlook-warren-buffett-cashes-in-on-railroad-tank-cars

"Union Tank Car Company or UTLX (their best known reporting mark) is a railway equipment leasing company (and car maintenance / manufacturing) headquartered in metro Chicago, Illinois. As the name says, they specialise in tank cars, and covered hopper cars."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Tank_Car_Company

https://www.aar.org/safety/Documents/Railroad%20Tank%20Cars.pdf

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ScottsMerkin@ruddskiIf the government mandates new, improved tank cars, no oil will be hauled until they are forthcoming. That's what the regulation does. It's aimed at the cars's owner, but  forbids the railroad to move a car that does not meet those standards.

The car that likely caused the North Dakota derailment was not a tank car but a grain hopper on the adjoining track. I'm almost certain that car was not owned by a railroad but by a car leasing company.  Rail-owned freight cars went out with the 40-foot red boxcar.

ruddski
ruddski

If more regulation just leads to huge fines, with no actual increase in safety, then my solution is as it's always been - just avoid railways as much as possible, they've been exploding for over 100 years.

James_the_P3
James_the_P3

@P1GunterI might be sympathetic to that excuse if she didn't repeat the charge that "[t]he trains keep exploding" in the body of the story.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul@TheOneandOnly That "deadly" grain spills out over the right-of-way after a derailment. It sits in the sun and rain for awhile and then it starts to ferment. Bears come and eat the mash and get drunk and belligerent or happy, depending upon their disposition. Either way, they're a nuisance. 

 I'm not making this up; it's happened in Canada.  

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ScottsMerkin@TheOneandOnlyI think if each American were given a small bottle of crude oil -- maybe a liter or two -- and required to take it with them wherever they're headed, we could probably do the job.

Oh, by the way, would you mind taking this lump of coal and this package of soap for Walmart while you're going?

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

@ScottsMerkin @TheOneandOnly They don't want the oil transported.  They want it so that the rich (them) can barely afford to stay warm, and everyone poor (i.e. black) dies over a harsh winter. 

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ruddski It was driven by the anticipation of regulation.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@pak152@bmarvel@ruddskiin no way negates my point, pak, which is that the railroads for the most part do not own or maintain the tank car fleet.

Tank cars are owned either by the particular shipper -- that's why one often sees the oil company logo splashed across the side of the car - or by a leasing company such as  Union Tank Car. When the car requires repairs or replacement, it is hauled back to the owning company's maintenance base, or repaired by a contractor at the leasing company's expense. All the railroad does is haul it around and do the kind of routine inspection that every car on every train receives. 

Next time you're stuck at a railroad crossing, pak, read the lettering on the car carefully. It will tell you who owns it (not the railroad, unless it's hauling the railroad's diesel fuel). It will tell you where the car is to be sent for maintenance, and likely where for loading and unloading. 

If the car does not meet certain government standards it is "bad ordered." The railroad won't haul it, and it's the owning company's responsibility to fix or replace it. That's why the AAR, the railroad's lobbying arm, is asking the Department of Transportation to mandate safer tank cars.    

Warren Buffet knows a good investment when he sees it and railroads are a superb investment these days. He does not run the trains, toot the horn, switch the cars. He just clips his coupons, as long as the income flows in.          


bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ruddskiReally, ruddski? And you'd ship by...supertanker? Highway rig? Pipeline? Or maybe  by elves in little silver teapots. 

Make an effort to inform yourself. It ain't your father's railroad, anymore. 

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul@bmarvel@TheOneandOnly I got your point about grain. I guess the aswer is than more care should be exercised in the handling and shipment of cude pil than of grain -- or cars.


I've a;ways been amused by the drunken bear incidents. But on the whole, I'd rather face drunk raccoons than drunk ears.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@bmarvel@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul@TheOneandOnly 

The point that I was trying to make is that neither the grain nor the oil had anything to do with the derailment.  They just happened to be the items being transported.  The grain train derailed due to a frost heave.  The grain cars fell onto the adjacent track.  The train carrying the oil cars hit the first train.

If the second train had been carrying automobiles instead of oil, I doubt that this would have made the news to the extent that it has.

As for the bears, the same thing happens when various wild berries and fruits ferment as well.  I think bears like it when they get a buzz on.  Raccoons are the same way.  One time I came across an old abandoned pear orchard in S. Illinois.  there must have been about 25 raccoons all stumbling around.  When they caught sight of me they would try to stand up on their hind legs to get a better look.  They would just fall over.  Some of them were so drunk they couldn't even walk.  It was the most hilarious sight that I ever saw.

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