The amount of oil being transported by railroad tanker cars from North Dakota's Bakken Formation continues to increase at an unprecedented rate. With more oil comes increased risk to the public.
The National Transportation Safety Board warns they are "concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident."
Last July a runaway oil train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings destroyed. The oil boom struck Casselton last month when an oil train derailed a mere half mile outside the city. Out of 20 tanker cars carrying oil, 18 were punctured. A series of powerful bomb-like explosions followed.
A railroad tank car carrying oil blocks the crossing which leads to the Souris Valley Golf Course in Minot. The red label at the right identifies the petroleum contents in the tank car.
"It's incredibly dangerous," said Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell. "Until they get their tank cars turned around, they are a disaster waiting to happen."
According to the National Transportation Safety Board crude oil shipments in the U.S. have increased by 400 percent since 2005. North Dakota's Bakken Formation is cited as the source for the vast majority of the increase. The NTSB says more than 400,000 railroad tanker cars of crude oil were moved in 2013. That compares with 9,500 tanker car loads in 2008.
"The large-scale shipments of crude oil by rail simply didn't exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.
Senators John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., have expressed their concerns over the safety of transporting Bakken crude by railroad. Although NTSB findings on the Casselton derailment are not expected to be released until November, Heitkamp said, "We need to do everything possible to make sure North Dakota communities are safe."
Hoeven has been an advocate of improved safety standards for tanker cars for several years. The cars that have been involved in the recent explosive derailments are DOT111's. A few newer models, DOT1232's, have come on line recently but they still make up only a small portion of the nation's railroad tanker car fleet.
"On a voluntary basis beginning in 2011 the industry went to buying newer, stronger tanker cars," Hoeven told The Minot Daily News. "They are double-hulled, stronger cars. The ends are reinforced and there is better venting."
Hoeven said he expects more new tanker cars to enter the fleet when industry standards are finalized. However, that process has been much slower than the demand from the Bakken. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a branch of the Department of Transportation, is the organization that regulates oil shipments and is tasked with setting new standards for railroad tanker cars.
"They still haven't come out with new standards for tanker cars," said Hoeven. "The industry is buying more and more of these new cars and still don't have the standards. They need some certainty. You have to take all the steps to move crude as safely as possible, pipelines too. That's something I've been pushing for years."
Tanker trains carrying crude oil number as many as 110 cars, each possibly containing more than 27,000 gallons of Bakken crude. Many of the tanker trains pass through communities large and small, en route to refineries. Today large tanker trains commonly roll through Minot, passing waiting motorists, buildings and businesses located along the rail lines. The situation is compounded by the fact that much of the Bakken crude has proven to be more volatile than oil extracted elsewhere. The PHMSA is investigating that Bakken oil may contain excessive amounts of natural gases, thereby increasing its volatility.
"Imagine a 28,000-gallon tank ripped open like a sardine can," said McConnell. "It's like a very large bomb. It blows up and out. It's not a fire you can fight. All you can do is draw a line in the sand and wait."
The Minot Fire Department is well aware of the increase in Bakken oil traveling by rail. The department requests regular reports from the railroads on what is being transported through the city, but those reports do not reveal specific dates or times due to Homeland Security concerns.
"We train with the railroad on a regular basis. Every year we send some of our guys to the National Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado, for training," said C.J. Craven, Minot fire chief, when asked about the possibility of fighting an oil fire in Minot. "We have plans in place, but they depend very much on where an accident would happen."
In a somewhat unusual move, the NTSB on Thursday issued recommendations jointly with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. BNSF and Canadian Pacific railways regularly transport crude oil over tracks bisecting Minot. NTSB safety recommendations prompted by the recent explosive derailments included planning routes to avoid "populated and sensitive" areas and making a stronger effort to properly classify hazardous shipments.
"We've got more crude moving than ever before," said Hoeven. "We have to move it as safely as possible. Oil companies and the railroads have an interest in moving it as safely as possible."
Hoeven stressed that the first things to be done for increased safety in transporting oil by rail was to take all measures necessary to prevent derailment and, in the event of a derailment, to be able to reduce the risk of fire or explosion.
"It is progress," said Hoeven. "It is part of the whole solution, but there is more to do."
Canadian Pacific Railway spokesman Ed Greenberg, Minneapolis, estimated that CP moves 10 to 12 trains a day through Minot. However, he added, shipments along the main line through the city are not limited to Bakken crude. Many of the trains are loaded with commercial goods that "people would use in personal and business lives on a daily basis."
In regard to railroad safety and Bakken crude, Greenberg stated, "CP has a rigorous safety system in place. It is imbedded in all our train operations. We've added maintenance crews and inspectors in the Minot area. CP is continuing to collaborate on any additional measures to make our industry even safer. Our railroad is urging for an immediate and meaningful increase in federal tank car safety standards. We are actively engaged."
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth, Minneapolis, said the average train count in Minot is approximately 40 trains in a 24-hour period. That compares to approximately 33 in 2009.
"The overall mix of traffic in some areas may have changed and this would be true in North Dakota where crude oil is shipped increasingly by rail," said McBeth. "But we also are seeing increasing volumes on this northern corridor for other products, including consumer products, agricultural products and automobiles."
While the industry waits for new standards for tank cars, efforts are under way on several fronts to eliminate the use of the tank cars known as DOT111's. The NTSB estimates that nearly 70 percent of tank cars in use today risk failure during an accident. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is among those calling for DOT111's to be phased out of service.
Meanwhile, the Departnent of Transportation earlier this month issued a safety alert warning about the potential high volatility of Bakken oil. Such warnings, coming in the wake of dangerous and spectacular derailments, are receiving attention. A proposed oil-loading facility near Beach will face scrutiny at a zoning board hearing Feb. 24.
"You are not going to stop trains from hauling," said McConnell, "but they can change the way they operate. They don't have to travel through towns at 40 miles per hour. If they slow down, people will complain about that too."