The derailment and subsequent explosion of rail cars carrying North Dakota crude oil last week has again sparked debate over oil train safety.
The wreck, in which 26 tankers carried by a CSX Corp. train derailed and resulted in a fireball in West Virginia, prompted some to argue that North Dakota regulators and elected officials need to do more to make sure oil is transported safely. Regulators, meanwhile, maintain that new conditioning standards set to go into effect in April that are aimed at separating natural gas liquids from oil will help make it safer before its shipped.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission issued an order in December that requires operators to condition Bakken crude oil to a vapor pressure of 13.7 pounds per square inch or less, which they said is 1 psi less than national requirements.
The Dakota Resource Council called those standards "window dressing" this week, and suggested using other methods it said would make oil less explosive.
"The new North Dakota process falls far short of safe and doable standards," the group said in a statement.
Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources, said Thursday it was unclear whether the oil involved in the West Virginia derailment had been conditioned in accordance with North Dakota's pending order. He said a previous survey determined that almost 80 percent of operators already had the equipment necessary to become compliant with the order.
"At this point, we have to let this order go into effect and let the operators get the equipment installed," Helms said when asked if the state should revisit its conditioning order in the wake of the derailment. He said the department has not received any requests for extensions or exceptions from operators preparing to be in compliance with the state's order.
"You can't say that this derailment is a test of that yet," said Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The conditioning standards were implemented after several high-profile rail car explosions involving crude oil from North Dakota, including one outside Casselton, N.D., in late 2013 and one that killed 47 in Canada months earlier.
The amount of crude oil moving on the rails has skyrocketed in recent years as pipelines struggled to keep up with booming production. About 400,000 carloads of crude oil originated on U.S. class one railroads in 2013, up from almost 11,000 in 2009, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Oil conditioning is one part of a "four-part solution" that involves multiple federal agencies to make oil transportation safer, North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter wrote in an email. The other parts are crude oil train routing and operation, emergency response training and funding as well as tank car and cargo classification.
"We don't really have any details on what caused the derailment in West Virginia," said North Dakota Petroleum Council spokeswoman Tessa Sandstrom, noting that other commodities like ethanol have been involved in major accidents. "It's a flammable liquid, it's always going to be a flammable liquid and it's treated, classified and transported as such. So we just need to look at the bigger picture and take a more comprehensive look at what is causing these derailments."
The oil that exploded in West Virginia was carried by newer-model tank cars, according to Reuters, not the older DOT-111 tank cars. The tank cars carried by the CSX Corp. train were CPC 1232 models.
Federal agencies are in the process of approving safety standards for tank cars, and Helms said the state's order to condition oil to a vapor pressure of 13.7 psi helps determine those criteria.
"This whole rail car standard thing has been a discussion for years," Helms said. "I think a big part of the problem was not knowing what you should design the standard around."
Still, the Dakota Resource Council has argued that North Dakota should adopt requirements for oil stabilization, a process that "could potentially rid Bakken crude of its explosive elements," according to its public comments on the oil conditioning order. It also notes that stabilization is used in the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas.
"We just figure if they do it in Texas, they should be able to do it here without a problem," said Sean Arithson, spokesman for the Dakota Resource Council.
Still, Helms said stabilization is a more expensive and larger process "that has risks of its own."
"It is a very intense process to reduce the volatility of very light condensate," Helms said. "It hasn't been applied widely to crude oil."
Triplett argued that the state needs a more "thorough" study of the chemical properties of Bakken crude oil. Two studies, one initiated by the Petroleum Council and one by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, reached different conclusions on the oil's volatility.
"Once you have the facts in front of you, then the solutions become rather more obvious," she said.