DOE: Department of Evasiveness? More Government Delay Tactics as Bomb Trains Roll On

DeSmogBlog | July 17, 2015 | Column by Justin Mikulka

The oil industry and the government regulators in charge of regulating the industry don’t understand the basic science of oil. This is the core of the argument used to justify why they continue to run dangerous trains filled with Bakken oil through communities across North America. Do you believe them?

Image credit: Oil train tank cars, Steve Frame via Shutterstock.

Despite the audacity of this position, it is being used to delay any new regulations and to support the idea that the mystery of why Bakken crude oil explodes must be studied for years before it would be possible to make any regulatory decisions.

What is happening is that the tactic of creating doubt about basic science is being used to allow the continued transportation of dangerous Bakken crude oil by rail.

It’s an approach the industry learned quite well during several decades of climate change denial efforts.

However, the science is well established about why Bakken oil trains explode when they crash — which is clear when you ask an actual oil scientist who isn’t beholden to the oil industry, which Al Jazeera did.

The notion that this requires significant research and development is a bunch of BS,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Houston. “The science behind this has been revealed over 80 years ago, and developing a simple spreadsheet to calculate risk based on composition and vapor pressure is trivial. This can be done today.”

These known facts were reiterated by Christopher Smith, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy in testimony during a congressional science committee hearing on the issue of Bakken oil and its volatile behavior.

We think that in a laboratory setting for crude oil higher volatility is going to be consistent with higher light ends which do have a higher degree of flammability and volatility.”

That is the issue of the Bakken crude risks in a nutshell. The oil is dangerous because it has a higher concentration of “light ends,” also known as natural gas liquids. To make the oil safe to transport, those light ends need to be removed using theprocess of stabilization. The industry already utilizes stabilization before it puts oil into pipelines or ocean going tankers, just not before it fills up rail tank cars.

Mr. Smith should be well aware of the properties of crude oil. Prior to his appointment by President Obama, he spent “eleven years with two major international oil companies focused primarily on upstream business development.”

But before anyone on the science committee might have jumped to the conclusion that it was time to recommend some simple new regulations to address the volatility of crude oil, Mr. Smith laid out the case for why this science isn’t enough and in fact, in his opinion, the issue requires more study.

We are going through right now that statement of work which essentially is going to be able to allow us to offer more precise questions [sic] to the questions you just asked which is in the real world with a real rail car with a real derailment with a real fire what would be the relationship between vapor pressure, volatility, ignitability, flammability. Those are some things we haven’t done again in real practical applications so we need to move from the lab to kind of the real world laboratory of real rail cars.”

Apparently the eight Bakken oil trains that have crashed and exploded in the last two years don’t provide any useful information like the kind that can be found in the “real world laboratory of real rail cars.”

This Department of Energy (DOE) also claims the issue needs more study. That’s why the new oil-by-rail regulations released in May of this year did not address the issue of Bakken oil volatility. Those regulations say “any specific regulatory changes related to treatment of crude oil would consider further research and be handled in a separate action.” 

So, any new regulations are going to have to wait on that research being completed. The Department of Energy has now completed the statement of work that Assistant Secretary Smith referred to regarding this research. So, how about thosereal world tests of railcars?

There are currently no plans to fund the full-scale combustion tests or the comprehensive sampling and analysis that are described in Tasks 5 and 6 of the SAE Plan. Such work may also be appropriate for support from other sources, including industry.

So the one critical part of the research that Mr. Smith said needed to be completed won’t be funded unless the oil industry wants to pay for it. Or at least they are saying that “may also be appropriate.”

Perhaps it would be appropriate for the regulators to actually regulate based on the known scientific facts?

Some perspective on this issue is required to fully comprehend the idea of industry funding research that would require new safety regulations. The Department’s partner in this latest proposed research is Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia also completed the initial DOE-funded “literature review” that looked at Bakken crude. Two of the three studies that Sandia looked at for that review were funded by the oil industry.

As reported by DeSmog when the Sandia study was released, Sandia found serious flaws in the industry-funded studies, saying that one had “fundamental limitations” which “makes the report somewhat anecdotal.”

And now the DOE has recommended that if any research gets done on the “real world” full-scale combustion tests, that work should be funded by the oil industry.

It should be noted that Paula Gant, a former gas industry lobbyist, Smith’s direct report at DOE, and the person associated with this Sandia research, was directly involved in the lack of North Dakota state regulations regarding Bakken oil volatility, as a DeSmog investigation revealed earlier this year. 

So, the Department of Energy — with direction from the White House and working along with the Department of Transportation and allies in Congress — have employed a rather elegant strategy to ensure that there will be no regulations regarding the volatility of Bakken oil for many years. It is a twisted web designed to create plausible deniability at every level.

Meanwhile, an actual oil scientist says that no research is required to understand the issue and that very notion is “BS.” And in the real world, Bakken oil will continue to ignite and explode putting the lives of millions of people living along the train tracks at risk due to the potential for an unplanned “full scale combustion test” occurring where they live.

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE works to promote safe, sustainable energy and environmental justice.  We aim to engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry's assault on the people of Albany and our environment.