News sources on Friday reported the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a warning to the public, emergency responders and shippers about the high volatility of crude oil being shipped by rail from the Bakken oil patch in eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
The safety alert came after a string of explosive accidents, according to federal officials. The Bakken oil patch is a huge oil shale reserve and has resulted in the area becoming the second largest oil reserve in the country, behind Texas.
The government's announcement declares Bakken's light, sweet crude oil to be different than traditionally heavy crude oil because it is more prone to ignite at a lower temperature. Lighter crude oils have a lower "flash-point," and the vapors will ignite quicker.
The discovery of the Bakken oil patch has decidedly lessened our country's reliance on foreign oil and brought thousands of jobs to the region. But with increased reliance on rail transport instead of pipelines, the dangers have increased. Public safety of communities bisected by rail lines carrying this oil has become a major concern.
In July, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. In November, an oil train from North Dakota exploded in Alabama. Over 749,000 gallons of oil from 26 tanker cars was released.
It is doubtful whether the government's latest warning will make any difference in preventing another accident. Oil industry officials say this latest announcement is nothing new because it doesn't offer any new insights into the problem.
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a group representing hundreds of oil companies, said,
"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,"
Ness added that companies shipping from the Bakken fields were already adhering to federal regulations. He also pointed out that it was necessary to keep the pressure on federal and state regulators to make things safer.
Oil moving around the U.S. increased since 2009, when the number was a little over 10,000 tanker cars, to over 400,000 in 2013. North Dakota's production of oil is now estimated to be about one million barrels a day, and the state is increasingly using rails to move oil to the east, west and gulf coasts.