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OUR OPINION: Oil-train safety starts in the oil fields

Several times a day, oil trains rumble through Grand Forks, prompting red lights to flash, rail safety arms to fall — and stopped motorists to ponder their fiery fates if that train were to explosively derail.

Grand Forks has a new stake in rail safety, as does just about every other community in the upper Midwest.

So, the city also has a new stake in rail-safety controversies, the latest of which made headlines Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal.

“North Dakota fracking: Behind the oil-train explosions,” the headline read.

Residents and regulators alike, take note.

The Journal story adds to our knowledge about stabilization and the role it might play in safely shipping Bakken oil.

And for regulators and academics, the key word in that sentence is “might.”

Should the federal and state governments force the oil industry in North Dakota to remove more of its most volatile gases before shipment, as already happens (according to the story) in Texas?

The oil industry says no. But Americans generally want these decisions made by more representative and less self-interested sources, and that means the government.

Regulators need to tackle this issue promptly and aggressively, then weigh the costs against the benefits and decide whether for safety’s sake, a network of Bakken oil stabilizers should be built.

“When energy companies started extracting oil from shale formations in South Texas a few years ago, they invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make the volatile crude safer to handle,” the Journal reported.

“In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale oil field, nobody installed the necessary equipment. The result is that the second-fastest growing source of crude in the U.S. is producing oil that pipelines often would reject as too dangerous to transport.

“Now the decision not to build the equipment is coming back to haunt the oil industry as the federal government seeks to prevent fiery accidents of trains laden with North Dakota oil. Investigators probing crude-by-rail accidents, including one a year ago that killed 47 people in Quebec, are trying to determine why shale oil has proved so combustible — a question that has taken on growing urgency as rail shipments rise.

“Only one stabilizer, which can remove the most volatile gases before transport, has been built in North Dakota and it hasn’t begun operation, according to a review by The Wall Street Journal. …

“Many industry experts and energy executives say privately that using stabilizing units would improve safety but are reluctant to make that point publicly for fear of antagonizing the companies that do business in North Dakota.”

And there’s the rub.

For its part, the American Petroleum Institute has “not seen any data to suggest processing crude in the field reduces risk,” a spokesman for the oil-industry trade group told the Journal.

“The North Dakota Petroleum Council expresses a similar view.”

So, who’s right — the institute and the Petroleum Council, or the “many industry experts and energy executives” cited by the Journal?

The federal and state governments must resolve to promptly find out.

It’s true that America’s railroads have long experience in shipping carloads of hazardous materials. But it’s also true that the gigantic volume of Bakken oil shipments demands new calculations of odds — and the unusual spate of oil-train-related infernos has rail safety on every Midwesterner’s mind.