US officials comment on Bakken crude flammability

US officials are investigating whether Bakken crude oil produced in North Dakota could have a higher flammability than other crude oils, and could be more prone to explosions. The investigation follows a recent rail transport accident in North Dakota, along with several other rail-related accidents.

A new safety alert from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) warns Bakken producers about the possibility of increased flammability. The memo comes in the aftermath of an accident along a stretch of North Dakota railway.

The PHMSA issued the safety alert to shippers and carriers, emergency responders, and the general public, saying that Bakken crude should be handled carefully because it may be more flammable than other grades. The notice followed preliminary inspections after recent rail derailments involving Bakken crude in North Dakota; Alabama; and Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada. It reinforces the requirement to properly test, characterize, classify, and, where appropriate, sufficiently degasify hazardous materials prior to and during transportation, the report said.

The advisory followed one that PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) jointly published on Nov. 20, 2013. The latest notice came soon after a BNSF train carrying Bakken crude caught fire west of Fargo, North Dakota, after it struck a derailed train carrying agricultural goods on Dec. 30.

Investigators have noticed a surprising degree of explosive force and resulting damage from recent rail transport accidents, including the latest one in the final days of 2013 near Casselton, North Dakota. In that explosion, the resulting force was more than traditionally observed in these situations. Likewise, Bakken producers have reported large amounts of corrosion in tank cars, more than is typical from this type of transport.

PHMSA said it and FRA have jointly initiated “Operation Classification,” a compliance initiative involving unannounced inspections and testing of crude oil samples to verify that the materials have been properly classified and described as hazardous materials. Preliminary testing has focused on classification and packing group assignments for crude oil that measure some of its inherent chemical properties, the agency said.

Officials are now examining whether Bakken crude exhibits a more corrosive or sulfurous nature than other crude oils. In the meantime, Bakken producers are being warned to “sufficiently degasify” any crude oil loaded onto rail transport.

North Dakota Bakken production has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to advances in drilling techniques. The increase in production has led to a massive increase in rail transport. Trains carried nearly 700,000 barrels a day to market in October 2013, an increase of more than 65%.

PHMSA said it expects to have final test results soon for Bakken crude’s gas content, corrosivity, toxicity, flammability, and other characteristics, which should inform its proper characterization more clearly.


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