New and Improved Bomb Trains? Oil Industry Plans to Ship Even More Dangerous Light Oils

Read time: 6 mins

As oil train protests continue across North America to mark the two-year anniversary of the Lac-Megantic disaster, trouble is brewing in Texas. At the recent Crude Markets and Storage Summit energy conference in Texas, Pat McGannon, vice president of Rangeland Energy, made the following statement.

Rail provides a solution for high-gravity condensates.” 

High gravity condensates are the result of the industry’s fracking for oil. Much of the product that comes out of the ground in the Eagle Ford shale formation in Texas is condensate which is also referred to as ultra light oil. So why does rail provide the solution for moving this ultra light oil?

Because the condensate/light oil can’t meet pipeline safety regulations for maximum API gravity*. The oil is too volatile and with a much higher specific gravity than allowed for transportation by pipeline. 

As we’ve written about extensively at DeSmog, rail transportation has no such regulations. And one of the main reasons is that a directive came from the White House that the long awaited oil-by-rail regulations would not address this issue. And they did not.

So what does the industry want to do with highly volatile and dangerous light oil aka condensate? Put it in unsafe tank cars and send it down the tracks to the Gulf Coast where it can be exported. Because, conveniently for the oil companies, the Obama administration also now allows condensate to be exported thanks to a change made quietly at the end of last year.

As Reuters recently reported, oil companies are rapidly expanding the amount of condensate they are exporting, with the totals doubling from January to May.

Note the Reuters article actually refers to condensate as “light oil.” One of the reasons that condensate is sometimes referred to as light oil or ultra light is that the export guidelines have no specifications for what qualifies as condensate.

The oil companies are allowed to self classify the oil they want to export as condensate.

With this backdoor around the crude oil export ban, the rush is on to build more capacity to process the condensate/light oil via stabilization before it is put on ships for export. In late June, Cheniere Energy Inc. announced it would invest $550 million in a new facility to process condensate for export.

Companies need to build stabilization capacity because stabilization of condensate is required before it can be loaded onto ocean-going tankers for export.

While exploding rail cars are a small cost of doing business for oil and rail companies, no one wants to have a fully loaded ocean tanker explode. That would get costly.

In the following clip, Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg explains to Rachel Maddow how the oil industry stabilizes oil before it is put it into pipelines or on tankers but doesn’t do that for rail tank cars.

Feinberg and Maddow were discussing Bakken crude. But Eagle Ford condensate is potentially more dangerous — a point made by Ryan Couture of industry consulting firm Turner, Mason & Co. last year. Couture was trying to explain why it wasn’t necessary to address the volatility of the Bakken oil despite the obvious danger and death toll from exploding trains. 

The condensates in Texas are substantially lighter and more volatile than Bakken crude,” he explained to The Bakken magazine. “Their vapor pressure is high enough in Eagle Ford condensate that it cannot be shipped via pipeline, and stabilization is required in order to meet the specifications for transport.”

But of course there are no specifications for transport when using rail.

How dangerous is condensate? A ConocoPhillips Material Safety Data Sheet for condensate details the risks under a heading of “Unusual Fire & Explosion Hazards.”

Extremely flammable. This material can be ignited by heat, sparks, flames, or other sources of ignition…Vapors may travel considerable distances to a source of ignition where they can ignite, flash back, or explode.

Later in the document it states “Extremely Flammable. May vaporize easily at ambient temperatures.”

The high volatility of condensate and Bakken oil is the main reason they are so dangerous. They are very volatile at normal temperatures involved in transport. An example of this can be seen in this video of Eagle Ford condensate boiling at room temperature. 

Obviously you can’t put that in a pipeline. But the oil industry is planning to fill up mile-long trains with it — trains that are made up of unsafe tank cars with 19th century braking systems. And then they will run the trains to the coast where they will stabilize the oil to make it safe to put on tanker ships. And then they will export it to other countries where they can make even more money.

The oil-by-rail boom has been highly lucrative for the rail and oil industries. And while communities across the continent are working to protect themselves from the known risks, the industries are not only ignoring the safety of these communities, but they are going to expand the practice with even riskier oil products.

As these risks have become more widely known, politicians and editorial boards across the U.S. have called for the stabilization of oil prior to it being put in tank cars. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has advocated for stabilization, as has Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) with a separate proposed bill.

They are joined by many other members of congress demanding stabilization prior to the shipment of oil by rail. Even the New York Times chimed in specifically advocating for the need to stabilize the oil.

However, the oil industry has successfully fought these efforts, and now the Department of Energy has agreed with the industry that nothing should be done for several years while they “study” this issue.

As we reported in May, the new oil-by-regulations specifically state that they did not address the issue and believe it requires “further research.”

Last year at a hearing about potentially stabilizing the Bakken oil, one of the oil industry representatives shed some more light on why they don’t stabilize Bakken crude.

The flammable characteristics of our product are actually a big piece of why this product is so valuable. That is why we can make these very valuable products like gasoline and jet fuel,” said Tony Lucero of oil producer Enerplus.

So, two years after Lac-Megantic, instead of having a revamped oil-by-rail industry safety regimen to address known risks, the Obama administration has allowed the industry to continue business as usual and also has opened new doors for increased risk…all to the sole benefit of oil and rail profits.

If you live near the tracks, on the other hand, your family’s lives aren’t nearly as important to the industry or your government.


* This article has been corrected to indicate API gravity rather than specific gravity.

Image credit: LightBrigading via Flickr

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