Gases in Oil Tank Cars: How Volatile, Cantwell Wants to Know

By:  The Seattle Pi - Joel Connelly
Source: The Seattle Pi

Three oil trains pass through Seattle each day, headed to north Puget Sound refineries, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is prodding federal regulators to take a long, hard look at what will happen to their cargoes if a train derails.

Oil tanker cars derailed beneath the Magnolia Bridge in July 2014. The train was going only 5 mph.

Cantwell wants something called the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to probe the volatility of gases in tank cars hauling Bakken crude oil, and how that can contribute to the risk of explosions if cars derail.

“Oil production has increased faster than the infrastructure needed to transport it in the safest ways,” Cantwell told a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Thursday.

“And I want to be clear about this.  We currently do not have the regulations on the books to safely transport this product.  I am going to be working for further measures to make sure that we do get those standards in place.”

The Bakken oil field in North Dakota is responsible for a surge in U.S. oil production, from 5 million to 9 million barrels a day, since 2008.

A coal train passes an oil train after tanker cars derailed in Magnolia in July 2014.  The carbon economy is making an increasing footprint in the Northwest.

Much of it is carried by trains across North America.  Puget Sound refineries welcomed their first oil train in September 2012.

A series of explosions has awakened public concern.

Forty-seven people were killed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, when an oil train slipped its brakes and barreled into the town in July 2013.  A major explosion took place outside New Carrolton, North Dakota, a few months later.

The derailing of an oil train caused a conflagration last month in West Virginia.  And a CN oil train derailed and burned in a remote, forested area of Ontario, disrupting trans-Canada VIA rail service.

Cantwell had at the witness table Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and Jeff Warmann, CEO of Monroe Energy LLC.  She asked whether bases need to be stabilized before Bakken crude is moved by rail.

“If you want to transport this on oil trains, make sure it’s safe,” the senator argued.  “My obligation to the people in the state of Washington is to make sure they are safe and secure.”

A fire burns Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, after an oil train derailed  near Charleston, West Virginia. Nearby residents were told to evacuate.  (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Steve Keenan)

The two executives argued that emphasis should be put on increased track inspections and maintenance.

“The problem is that we’ve gotten so cavalier in this nation that it’s OK to have two or three derailments a day no matter what the commodity is,” said Drevna.

“Just to be clear, I’m not going to accept that and I’m calling for higher standards.” Cantwell shot back.

The BNSF Railway, conscious of rising opposition, has taken to touting its safety and track maintenance efforts.

“BNSF inspects track and bridges more frequently than required by the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure they are safe,” BNSF said in an update Thursday.

“Most key routes on BNSF are inspected up to four times per week, or than twice the inspection frequency required by the FRA, and our busiest main lines are inspected daily.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation is set to finalize new standards in May for oil tank cars hauling flammable materials such as crude oil and ethanol.

But several derailments and fires — notably the West Virginia accident — have featured newer and supposedly safer cars.

Washington is the nation’s fifth-largest refining state.