On the fifth anniversary of explosions of Bakken crude oil near Casselton, N.D., the N.D. Industrial Commission is considering weakened rules for conditioning and testing oil destined for railroad transport.
Oh, the burning irony. One can almost smell it.
Comments to The Forum News Service about the Dec. 30, 2013, blasts from Rory Peterson, who runs Casselton’s Hardware Hank, were spot on:
“If it would have been in town, we would have been history,” he said. “We would have been an ink spot.’”
This isn’t mere hyperbole.
There’s a reason trains transporting Bakken crude are called “bomb trains” around the nation.
Bakken oil trains have exploded in or near multiple cities in the United States and Canada, communities like Casselton, Lynchburg, Va., and Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
The Lac-Mégantic blasts killed 47 people, incinerated 40 buildings and gutted most of the community’s downtown. According to one report, “Most victims had to be identified from DNA samples and dental records.”
This is a serious problem, and it’s flowing right past homes, schools and businesses through Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota, right on down the lines to the east and west coasts.
Two aspects of this complex problem, among many, are the volatility of natural gas liquids like ethane, butane, propane and isobutane, and the pressure they’re under in rail cars.
All those “-anes” have been “pains in the a’s” of the oil and gas industry since 2015.
Following the Casselton catastrophe, the Industrial Commission adopted new rules stating the vapor pressure of the crude cannot exceed 13.7 pounds per square inch and requiring companies to conduct tests every quarter.
But the industry and state government allies now say there’s no need to test that often.
At a recent hearing, Lynn Helms, director of the N.D. Dept. of Mineral Resources, told Industrial Commission members Gov. Doug Burgum, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring that, after 60,000 tests, “…about one in 1,000 have exceeded the 13.7 psi limit.”
One in 1,000. In other words, without the tests about 60 trains could have been sent clickity-clacking down the line with too much pressure in the rail cars.
The fallback for oil-gas cheerleaders lies in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s rules, which consider pressure under 14.7 psi for crude oil in rail cars to be “stable.”
Tell that to the families of the 47 people who died in the Lac-Mégantic inferno. It’s doubtful they’d be satisfied with “only” one in 1,000 tests coming in higher than the 13.7 psi limit.
As for the companies, they’re literally pulling billions out of North Dakota. It’s reasonable to require them to test the oil they send barreling past our homes, our kids’ schools and our businesses four times a year. That should be the bare minimum.
According to a spokesperson, the Industrial Commission hasn’t taken any action on oil conditioning and pressure rules since a public hearing in mid-November.
Perhaps by then the irony will sink in, like Bakken crude contaminating soil after another train derailment and explosion.
This column was submitted for consideration in The Forum's search for "the next great columnist."