After a series of explosive accidents, federal officials said Thursday that a type of crude oil being shipped by rail from the Northern Plains across the United States and Canada may be more flammable than other types of oil.
A safety alert issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (PDF) warned the public, emergency responders and shippers about the potential high volatility of crude from the Bakken oil patch. The department said that the Bakken’s light, sweet crude oil may be different from other heavy crudes and prone to ignite at a lower temperature.
The government's warning comes after a huge explosion on Monday caused by a crude train derailment near Casselton, North Dakota. No one was hurt, but worries about toxic fumes prompted the evacuation of hundreds of residents from the small town in eastern North Dakota.
The sprawling Bakken oil reserve is fueling the surging industry in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, which is now the nation's second-largest oil producer behind Texas.
New drilling methods such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have unlocked vast oil deposits in the region, reducing the nation's reliance on imported oil and bringing thousands of jobs to the area. Oil producers eager to maximize profits often try to supply refiners off the national pipeline grid who are willing to pay more for the fuel. That market pull is one reason why more than two-thirds of North Dakota's oil production is currently shipped by rail.
But as companies increasingly rely on trains instead of pipelines to get that oil to lucrative coastal markets, public safety in communities bisected by rail lines has become a major concern.
In July, 47 people were killed in Lac-Mégantic, Canad, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed. Another oil train from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Alabama in November, causing no deaths but releasing an estimated 749,000 gallons of oil from 26 tanker cars.
Whether the government's response to the latest derailment will help stave off another accident is uncertain. While safety advocates welcomed the move, others said the warning did not offer new information.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Bakken oil is a high-quality crude with a lower flash point – that's what makes it a desired commodity for all these coastal refineries," said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a Bismarck-based group that represents hundreds of oil industry companies.
Ness added that companies shipping oil from the Bakken already were adhering to federal regulations.
The amount of oil moving by rail in the U.S. has spiked since 2009, from just over 10,000 tanker cars to a projected 400,000 in 2013. Trains carried nearly 700,000 barrels a day of North Dakota oil to market in October, a 67 percent jump from a year earlier, according to the state pipeline authority.
Thursday's safety alert resulted in part from preliminary tests on Bakken oil to determine just how dangerous it is, said Jeannie Shiffer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration.
Shiffer said knowing the volatility of the oil is crucial so that it can be properly handled during shipping.
"The material must be properly classified at the beginning of the process. That determines everything," she said.
On the other hand, U.S. railroads want tank car manufactures to upgrade the national fleet with new safety standards that could cost the industry more than $3 billion, according to a Reuters estimate.
Given that oil is typically shipped in the same type of tank car no matter what its volatility, Larry Bierlein, an attorney for the Association of Hazmat Shippers, questioned the importance of Thursday's announcement. Flaws that render the most commonly used tank cars prone to rupture have been known for more than two decades.
Bierlein said the public would be better served by the government adopting a long-delayed proposal to improve those cars, known as DOT-111s.
"They have lost track of where safety is," he said of the Department of Transportation.
Al Jazeera and wire services