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Forum editorial: It’s too bad ND feels ‘picked on’

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem seems to think a federal agency “is picking on us” because of a finding that Bakken crude oil is dangerously volatile. He comes to that conclusion (likely with a little tongue-in-cheek) because of studies that suggest Bakken crude is no more volatile than other light sweet crude oils. Also apparently feeling put upon, Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he is “puzzled” that a U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration study focused on Bakken crude while other volatile crude oils are not getting similar scrutiny.

Stenehjem, Dalrymple and other state officials and regulators are big boys and girls. A little “picking on” likely won’t damage their psyches. And when the situation is examined without the filter of the state’s tendency to give the oil industry a pass, there is no credible reason to feel picked on or to be puzzled.

There have been several studies of the volatility of Bakken crude oil. The latest one, which was funded by the industry (make your own judgments about that), concludes Bakken oil is no more volatile than other light oils. That also means the North Dakota oil is no less volatile. Two other studies – the DOT’s and an analysis by the Wall St. Journal – concluded Bakken crude is highly volatile, and therefore poses a unique danger when transported by rail. But even without the studies, the nature of Bakken crude has been spectacularly demonstrated by fiery railroad accidents in Quebec, Canada, and near Casselton, N.D.

The studies suggest that light crude out of the Bakken and from other places are all volatile. That acknowledgement leads to the real concern: More and more volatile light crude is moving by rail than ever before. More and more of it is North Dakota Bakken crude. It follows, therefore, that the risks associated with moving Bakken oil via mile-long tank car trains have increased significantly. More volatile oil on the rails translates into a greater likelihood of accidents.

Federal and state regulators, the railroads and the oil industry are working to minimize oil train risk. Stronger tank cars are coming on line. Track beds are being strengthened. The possibility of removing volatile substances from light crude is being taken more seriously. Oil train speed limits through cities are being adjusted. Scrutiny of the entire oil transport system has never been more intense.

Given the astonishing acceleration of oil production and transportation, it only makes sense that regulation and the application of better science and engineering are ramped up, too. There is nothing puzzling about that. And if North Dakota needs to be “picked on” because the state is dragging its regulatory feet, so be it.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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