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Have new vapor-pressure standards made oil trains safer?

| Aug 7, 2015 | Train Accidents

As we’ve previously discussed on our blog, the last few years have seen a large number of accidents involving the derailment of oil trains originating from the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota and traveling to points throughout North America.

By far, the most horrific of these accidents took place back in 2013, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec sparking a massive inferno that killed 47 people. 

In the aftermath of this tragedy and other fiery train derailments in the ensuing years, lawmakers in North Dakota took what they viewed to be decisive action last November, passing a measure requiring all oil producers in the state to ensure that the vapor pressure of their Bakken crude not exceed 13.7 pounds per square inch during transport.

Specifically, producers may be required to heat the Bakken crude to a temperature of 110 degrees in order to separate compounds like propane and butane, and take other steps to reduce its volatility, a factor that many people, including some federal officials, blame for the explosions in the train derailments.

Interestingly enough, when an oil train carrying 106 tankers filled with Bakken crude derailed in Montana last month, sending 22 tanker cars off the tracks and rupturing five, there was no explosion when the 35,000 gallons of oil spilled — even after it came into contact with a downed power line.  

While many suggested that North Dakota’s new oil volatility rules, which took effect in April, were to be credited for the lack of a damaging and potentially life-threatening explosion, others are now suggesting that these rules probably had nothing to do with it.

Indeed, these parties, including oil industry employees and geologists alike, are arguing that the new rules are redundant given that the overwhelming majority of Bakken crude already meets the vapor pressure threshold and requires little to no conditioning prior to transport.

These same parties are also arguing that the new federal standards governing the design of oil tanker cars will likely have more of an impact on preventing explosions going forward than the volatility rules.

As for the lack of an explosion in last month’s derailment, some have argued that it could have simply been a matter of luck or, perhaps more scientifically, a lack of sufficient sparks to ignite an explosion.

It will be interesting to see whether the cumulative impact of these state and federal regulations will make a difference in keeping the general public and train workers safe.

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