Keeping trains on the tracks should be the priority in the reform of crude-by-rail, said the Washington-based policy advocate for the petroleum refiners that own much of the North American tank car fleet.
Too much focus is on the presumed weaknesses of the DOT-111 general-purpose tank car and on the particular properties of crude oil fracked from Bakken shale, said the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) in a May 14 submission to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Both are safe for haulage, the refiners argue in a contrarian view that rubs against the otherwise unanimous opinion of accident investigators, regulators, and railroaders that the DOT-111 and Bakken oil are an unacceptably risky pairing.
In an interview with Railway Age May 16, AFPM president Charles Drevna asked: “Can we have an intellectually honest discussion about mechanical and track integrity on the rails? You shouldn’t blame the cargo for an accident.”
At the same time, Canada’s oil shippers are resisting any requirement that they cover their consignments with public liability insurance. Legal and financial responsibility for the consequences of rail accidents should remain entirely with railroads and railroad insurers, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Fuels Association argued in a joint submission to a Transport Canada review arising from the Lac-Megantic accident.
Both Canadian Class I railroads and the Railway Association of Canada submitted that shippers should indeed insure their cargos against loss of life and environmental damages. Furthermore, CN and CP want the right to refuse consignments they judge to be too dangerous. Currently, as common carriers, railroads in both the U.S. and Canada are obliged to haul any legal cargo in authorized containers.
Thus, as the anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe approaches, what had seemed to be a public consensus that the ultra-light Bakken crude is inherently too volatile for DOT-111 carriage is fracturing into open dispute between oil shippers and rail carriers.
“As the standards are today for flammable liquids, Bakken crude fits right in, and the DOT-111 cars should be fine,” Drevna said.
While the AFPM supports regulatory adoption of the 2011 standard proposed by a cross-industry committee, Drevna said he doubts that Canada's phase-out of DOT-111s can be accomplished within the three-year timeline. Any additional new tank car specification beyond the industry-sponsored CPC-1232 standard should be delayed until comprehensive derailment data has been collected and analyzed.
No practical tank car would have survived the 64-mph derailment of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic's runaway at Lac-Mégantic, said Frits Wybenga of Dangerous Goods Transport Consulting, who on behalf of AFPM analyzed a survey of Bakken oil samples by organization members. “You can’t design-out a tank car rupturing in those circumstances. You can make them heavier and heavier and make a tank car that would withstand those forces, but you wouldn’t be able to carry much crude oil in it.”
Products considerably more hazardous are routinely and legally transported in DOT-111 cars and Bakken crude should continue to be classified and transported like any other Class 3 flammable liquid under the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR), said the AFPM.
“Bakken crude oil currently is transported in compliance with the HMR as a Class 3 Flammable Liquid in either Packing Group I, II, or III. In conclusion, there is no identifiable basis for regulating Bakken crude differently than other flammable liquids regulated by the DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations,” says the AFPM submission to DOT.
The AFPM report included an assessment of routine assays performed by its own members in the course of loading and receiving Bakken crude. With just one exceptionally high concentration of hydrogen sulfide among the 1,400 samples drawn between loading terminals and destination refineries, the AFPM concludes that Bakken crude falls comfortably within Class 3 Flammable Liquid specifications for carriage in DOT-111 cars. Furthermore, the DOT-111 was a safe vessel for any flavor of crude oil—providing railroads keep the cars on the tracks.
“Bakken crude oil was found to be well within the limits for what is acceptable for transportation as a flammable liquid,” the AFPM reported. “Bakken crude oil was compared with other light crude oils and determined to be within the norm in the case of light hydrocarbon content, including dissolved flammable gases. Measured tank car pressures show that even the older DOT-111s authorized to transport Bakken crude oil are built with a wide margin of safety relative to the pressures that rail tanks may experience when transporting Bakken crude oil.”
The report relies substantially on the “Reid Vapor Pressure” test, which was abandoned in 1990 for U.S. hazmat classification in favor of the dual criteria of whether a material is liquid or gas at 20°C (68°F) or, alternatively, has a vapor pressure of more than 300 kPa (43.5 psia) at 50°C (122°F). The Reid test remains a common industry measure of vapor pressure at 100°F (38°C) and transposes accurately to the HMR-approved pressure scale, says the AFPM.
“AFPM and its members appreciate the concerns raised in relation to rail transport of Bakken crude oil and stand ready to work cooperatively with DOT and other governmental organizations to ensure the safe transportation of Bakken crude oil,” the report says. “This survey shows that Bakken crude oil does not pose risks that are significantly different than other crude oils and other flammable liquids authorized for transportation as flammable liquids.”