North Dakota lacks equipment to make volatile crude oil safer

Energy companies in North Dakota’s lucrative Bakken Shale region haven’t invested in facilities that could make its crude oil less volatile and prone to explosion, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The Bakken produces highly volatile crude oil that pipelines would reject as too dangerous to transport, according to the WSJ. But the material is moved on trains daily through American cities—including in Pennsylvania.

A few years ago, when drilling for oil in Texas shale formations began, energy companies invested hundreds of millions of dollars in facilities equipped to make the oil safer.

But that hasn’t been done in North Dakota. The decision not to install this equipment is “coming back to haunt the oil industry” as U.S. regulators seek to prevent explosions from potential derailments of trains carrying the crude oil, according to the article.

More from The Wall Street Journal:

Investigators probing crude-by-rail accidents, including one a year ago that killed 47 people in Quebec, are trying to determine why shale oil has proved so combustible—a question that has taken on growing urgency as rail shipments rise.

Only one stabilizer, which can remove the most volatile gases before transport, has been built in North Dakota and it hasn’t begun operation, according to a review by The Wall Street Journal.

Stabilizers use heat and pressure to force light hydrocarbon molecules—including ethane, butane and propane—to form into vapor and boil out of the liquid crude. The operation can lower the vapor pressure of crude oil, making it less volatile and therefore safer to transport by pipeline or rail tank car.

North Dakota Bakken crude is potentially more volatile, corrosive and flammable than other kinds of crude. Investigations found that the Bakken crude that exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, last year was classified as a less dangerous type of oil.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it possible to reach previously untapped crude oil in the Bakken Shale. The surge in North Dakota’s production helped turn the U.S. into the number one producer of crude oil in the world.

Currently, in meetings with oil executives, U.S. regulators are discussing whether to require stabilization, according to WSJ. If stabilizers become a requirement, companies would have to shell out big investments and could potentially slow development in the Bakken.

Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or nkhan@publicsource.org.