15.7.14

REFINING IN TRANSIT.

Crude oil can be partially refined before it's loaded onto tank cars.  The resulting cargo is safer.
The stabilization process involves heating and pressurizing the oil to force out light hydrocarbons, such as ethane, butane, and propane, which can then be transported separately. These light hydrocarbons are the truly combustible components that make the light sweet crude coming from both Eagle Ford [Texas] and Bakken [North Dakota] susceptible to explosions in the event of a derailment. Heavy crude, such as from Alberta’s oil sands, is nowhere near as dangerous as the Bakken and Eagle Ford crude; as I’ve said before, you could probably blast such oil with a flamethrower, to no effect.
There's something in the behavior of North Dakota crude producers and the railroads that calls for further scrutiny, though.
The railroads could ask that the oil be stabilized, but their common carrier obligation to handle all business offered them perhaps prevents them from requiring such processing. Ditto the pipelines. And if the rails insist and pipelines do not, guess what happens then? So it appears to come down to government, in particular the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Administration, which has the authority to order stabilization.
I was under the impression that the railroads (BNSF in particular) were hauling so much Bakken oil for lack of any convenient pipelines (there's a complication involving the Cushing, Oklahoma basing point).  If so, that puts them in a better position to refuse dangerous shipments, particularly dangerous shipments that are straining capacity and on at least one occasion, catastrophically derailing at a choke point on the railroad.

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