Transport of crude oil by rail is an essential means of transport, especially in North Dakota where infrastructure is still being developed. Because a majority of the refineries that are equipped and ready to process light, sweet crude are located along the east and west coast, crude by rail is the only means of transporting crude since pipelines to those markets do not exist.
Yet, this area of transportation has come under much scrutiny, leading to many myths about the transportation method. Many of these are listed below.
FACT: Bakken crude oil is not more dangerous to transport by rail than other crude oils or other flammable liquids. Bakken is properly classified as a Class 3, Flammable Liquid according the Code of Federal Register 49, the U.S. Department of Transportation regulations on transport of Hazardous Materials by Truck and Rail. There are nine different hazardous materials classes as listed below. In order to classify, a certified shipper must look at an analysis of the material and understand its chemical characteristics. The classification process and corresponding regulations tell the shipper what type of railcar or truck must be used to properly contain the material to be shipped.
FACT: Bakken crude oil is not the lightest crude oil ever produced. There are many crude oils in the world, some are lighter and some are heavier in their component make up than Bakken crude oil. Bakken crude is naturally similar to refined products such as diesel, gasoline, and aviation fuel, making it a valuable, useful and desirable resource.
See chart below. API gravity is one measure the industry uses to communicate crude oil properties. The higher the API number, the lighter the crude oil. Bakken has an API gravity of approximately 42 degrees, very close to West Texas Intermediate and Brent, the most commonly discussed world crude oils.
Heavier crudes, those having API gravity of less than 35 degrees, often require cracking and additional processing of their heavier molecules to create marketable fuels.
FACT: Bakken crude oil is stabilized onsite and does not require additional offsite stabilization prior to being transported by truck or rail. The vapor pressure of Bakken crude oil is four times lower than the regulatory threshold (43.5 psi) for flammable liquids and approximately ten times lower than the design pressure for DOT 111 railcars (100 psi). Bakken crude oil is also suitable for pipeline transport.
Offsite stabilization is a process of treating “condensate” to meet EPA vapor pressure emission standards for tank storage. Bakken crude oil already meets these standards. Condensate has an API gravity of 50-60 degrees (see API gravity comparison of crude oils chart above).
FACT: Railroads move 99.9997% of all hazardous materials safety to destination. This is why methods for improving rail safety are taking a long time to develop. Hundreds of man-hours are being expended by the oil and gas producers, refiners, transporters and regulators to improve on the 0.003% of incidents remaining. The petroleum industry continues to work with the rail industry, state, local and federal government officials and leaders, and other key stakeholders to develop a holistic, comprehensive, and systematic approach that examines prevention, mitigation, and response.