Tessa Sandstrom: Myths Vs. Facts About Bakken Crude And Oil By Rail


The transportation of crude oil by rail has been a top issue the last few months. In discussing this topic, one of the speculations was that Bakken crude may (please note: may) have been more volatile than other light sweet crudes, and therefore more dangerous to haul than many other hazardous materials that traverse the nation’s rails daily, including ethanol, gasoline, diesel or other types of crude oil. That speculation was recently disproven by three separate independent studies, but still the misconceptions about Bakken crude continue to spread.

Myth: Bakken crude is more volatile than other crude oils
FACT:  Three independent studies have shown that Bakken crude is similar to other North American light, sweet crude oils in gravity, vapor pressure, flash point and initial boiling point. According to these studies, Bakken’s gravity, or density, is 41 degrees, which classifies it as a light sweet crude and is comparable to other light crudes, which are defined as having a gravity of 31.1 degrees or more.
Turner, Mason and Company, one of the contractors commissioned to study Bakken crude characteristics, found that the average vapor pressure for the commodity was between 11.5 and 11.8 pounds per square inch (PSI), which is virtually the same as other light crudes.

In fact, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden have acknowledged this and have rightly shifted focus on ensuring all hazardous materials, including ethanol, gasoline, diesel and crude oils, are transported safely.

Myth: Bakken crude is corrosive and damages tank cars.
FACT:  Corrosivity is defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation as having the ability to corrode a tank car by a half a centimeter per year. Sulfur weight and acidity, measured by the total acid number (TAN) are two contributors to corrosivity. Bakken crude’s sulfur weight of .14 percent classifies it as a sweet crude and well below the .5 percent threshold upon which it would be considered a sour crude. Comparatively, Bakken crude’s TAN is 0.1 to 0.2 milligrams of potassium hydroxide per gram (mg KOH/g) is low and comparable to West Texas Intermediate crude, a common benchmark crude. Crudes below 0.5 mg KOH/g is considered low TAN and rarely a concern. Crudes above 1.0 are considered high TAN, and require special refinery processing techniques.

Myth: Bakken crude contains gases that make it more hazardous
FACT:  The vapor pressure is a measure of a liquid’s ability to hold gases rather than releasing them into vapor. The Bakken’s average vapor pressure is an indicator that the liquid portion continues to hold on to those gases despite seasonal temperatures. Questions arose as to whether or not Bakken crude had a tendency to release vapors during transit. The Turner, Mason and Company study measured vapor pressure at the loading site in North Dakota and was measured again at the point of delivery 1,700 miles away in Louisiana. Results showed that the vapor pressure remained unchanged, showing that Bakken crude remains consistent even during transit.

Myth: Current DOT-111 tank cars are insufficient to haul Bakken crude
FACT:  DOT-111 tank cars are designed to accept vapor pressures of up to 100 PSI, which means even the Bakken’s maximum vapor pressure of 14.4 is three times lower than the accepted threshold. These same tank cars are used to haul ethanol, gasoline and diesel fuel, all of which also meet the criteria for these tank cars.

Myth: Bakken crude has been misclassified during shipping
FACT:  Bakken crude has been properly classified as a Packing Group I or II flammable liquid based on its flash point and initial boiling point. The study conducted by Turner, Mason and Company did identify flaws in the classification methodology, however. The limitations of the test required for measuring initial boiling point can result in the same sample of crude being assigned to Packing Group I (<95°F IBP) or Packing Group II (>95°F IBP). The American Petroleum Institute is currently working to determine improved, more precise classification standards for assigning flammable liquid packing groups to ensure maximum consistency and safety in the transportation of crude oils.  Packing Group I or II materials are still hauled in the same type of railcar and elicit the same emergency response in the case of an accident.

Myth:  Bakken crude needs to be stabilized or have light ends stripped before transit
FACT:  Data from the studies show that Bakken crude is not more volatile or flammable than other crudes. With a vapor pressure of 11.5-11.8 PSI, Bakken crude falls well below the safety margins built into railcars and well below the 43.5 PSI threshold between flammable liquids and flammable gases according to the DOT regulations.

Stripping of NGLs is used typically in the condensate window where API gravity is above 50 degrees. At API gravities of 50-60 degrees, stabilization is required for pipeline transportation and required by EPA environmental standards. Bakken crude has an average API gravity of 41, which falls below the EPA tank vapor guidelines, so it doesn’t make sense for industry or regulators to explore stripping the NGLs from Bakken. In most cases, “stabilization is used to fulfill market demand for light materials.” There is currently not a market demand for these lighter ends in North Dakota, however, and removing them from crude oil would require their transport by rail car to the Gulf Coast or East and West Coast where markets currently exist.
The NDPC welcomes the establishment of these markets, however, to contribute to a growing and diversified North Dakota economy.

Despite these and other perpetuating myths, sound scientific data consistently show that Bakken crude is a high quality commodity that is safe to haul by rail. Regulators and leaders such as Merkley and Wyden have recognized this and have shifted focus to the root of incidences involving Bakken crude: the derailments themselves.

Safety always has and continues to be a core value of the oil and gas industry and the goal is zero incidents. The NDPC and its members believe rail safety improvements must be developed using a holistic, comprehensive, and systematic approach that examines prevention, mitigation, and response. Safety solutions must be data-driven and produce measurable improvements to safety without creating new risks or inadvertently shifting the risks to other businesses or operations. To achieve this, collaboration is needed among government, shippers, railroads, and tank car builders.

The NDPC met with the White House Office of Management and Budget on July 7 to discuss these characteristics and find ways we can continue to work together to enhance safety in bringing this product to market and ensuring our state can continue to improve our energy security by providing a reliable energy resource for our nation.

Tessa Sandstrom

Tessa Sandstrom is the Communications Manager for the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Related posts

  • Roy_Bean

    Excellent article. Too bad that Heidi, dingy Harry and the rest of the democrat party aren’t interested in logic and reason.

    • Beaux Weevil

      Science deniers.

      • Micha Elyi

        Empirical science requires logic and math, two tools of patriarchal oppression.* Science also requires a belief that the material world is orderly and intelligible. One could call that a faith one must have in order to do material, empirical science. Logic, math, and faith; three reasons why science is denied by Democrats and the leaders they follow like sheep.

        * Yes, leftists–especially the feminist ones–have actually said that. Some of ‘em even hold university degrees, professorships, and might even be teaching your kids.

    • zdavid53

      The oil, water and gas of the Bakken formation have been analyzed over and over by many different laboratories. The API gravity, the vapor pressure, Initial boiling point in a engler distillation, and the corrosivity of the crude oil is not theory but is measured values. The findings of these measured values does not vary greatly from lab to lab. These tests are not exotic measurements, but routine tests that have been applied to crude oils for many years. The methods can be found in the ASTM (American Standard Testing Methods) and have been established for many years. They are easy to do, routine, and repeatable.

  • JimTown Guy

    What else would we expect the Communications Manager for the ND Petroleum Council to say????

    • tony_o2

      Would you like to refute any of her statements?

    • Michael Becker

      The studies cited are third party science. If you’re going to criticize them produce some peer reviewed studies that refute what she’s saying. You can go to google academic and search. Have a fun weekend.

      • Ron Schalow

        Millions of people saw the explosions. Four of them. Some were scientists, i suppose. 47 dead. 5 vaporized. Put that in your spreadsheet and peer review it.

        • Michael Becker

          That doesn’t pass for “science,” not that you’d understand that.

        • Finrod Felagund

          The plural of anecdote is not data.

      • PK


        Well looking at the leadership of Turner, Mason and Company, how can one think the study(which there’s no link to in the post) is completely objective and non-biased? I’m figuring this study isn’t in a peer reviewed journal. Maybe the study is accurate, or maybe it’s a fraud by industry insiders to help maximize profits.

      • codyjones

        The peer-reviewed process is permanently damaged. It’s not worth siting any longer. They keep gettin caught with fradulant papers. They just found another 60 that were fraud a few weeks ago and passed on as credible. Peer reviewed is centralized control of information and most are bogus reviews. They’re losing credibility in the science communty from those actually practicing real science.

    • effinayright

      You obviously have NO IDEA how intellectually vapid such a statement is.

      You might as well say, “Well, what else do you expect the POTUS to say? He’s a Democrat.”

      Or “Well, what else do you expect Boehner to say? He’s a Republican.”

      Or suppose a prosecutor in a murder trial recites the charges against the defendant and explains how the State will prove them during the trial. Suppose further, the defense counsel then shrugs his shoulders and addresses the jury thusly: “What else would we expect the Prosecutor to say?”

      Free clue, skippy: try addressing the argument “on the merits”, instead of “ad hominem”.

    • Chris Prestridge

      LOL, so now it’s all about denying the settled science. Any evidence to refute? Troll.

    • Guest

      It’s funny to see all the tards simply proclaim “SCIENCE!” and are obvlious to the irony that they routinely reject any science that doesn’t support corporate interests. To them, science is only accepted if it aligns with corporate interest.

      • Fred_Z

        What science specifically does the right reject? No doubt you’re blattering on about AGW where the “science” shows no warming for 17 years.

      • go_gipper

        vapor pressure and specific gravity are patriarchal concepts.

        • Drain52

          Yep, and invented by dead white males.

    • Kimmy84

      I’m with JimTown, it’s too dangerous to transport this stuff with rail cars, we need to build more pipelines.

      Thanks with that, Jim.

      • Fred_Z

        That’s not what JimTown said. he only said there is a cui bono argument against what the author of this article wrote. That might cast some doubt but does not refute any specific point made.

        • Kimmy84

          You know, I acutally had a sarcasm tag on that post before I deleted it? But I didn’t think it necessary.

          Go figure.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      It’s absolutely fair to point out that the North Dakota Petroleum Council is not without bias in this matter.

      That being said, would you like to refute any of the points she made specifically? Or are we just to assume that everything the industry says is a lie?

    • Drain52

      Textbook example of the genetic fallacy.

  • Whitehall

    She is saying that by the recognized engineering standards in use across the industry, Bakkan crude is a normal product and fits within normal safety and design measures. She makes a solid case.

    If there is something about Bakkan crude that is new to the industry and outside industry experience, then the burden of proof is on those making the accusations. Industry standards might need updating based on new experience.

    A check is aggregate safety records. On a barrel-per-mile basis, are Bakkan shipments really any more dangerous?

  • http://IKnowBO.com/ Slam1263

    It would still be more efficient to ship this product by pipeline.
    The Neo-Luddites will always be against human comforts.

  • RetdMSgt .

    The only reason that it’s being shipped by rail instead of a pipeline is because it’s being carried by Burlington Northern, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. And who is the majority shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway? Warren Buffett. Why else would he be giving money to groups who oppose the pipeline?

  • bittman

    Well, is it a myth or the truth that the multi-billionaire Warren Buffet (Obama’s friend who earns less “income” annually than his secretary) is making millions or perhaps billions by shipping the oil on the railroad company he owns and that is why the pipeline has never been built? Remember that the next time you hear a Progressive rail about the evils of capitalism — they much prefer crony capitalism because it better lines politicians’ pockets.

  • Ron Schalow

    Oh brother. Another industry flack telling people they didn’t see what they saw. Lac-Megantic didn’t happen. Lynchburg, Aliceville, Casselton…obviously safe. Can anyone recall the last time an oil train “exploded” that didn’t involve Bakken crude?

    Even Breitbart figured it out: http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2014/07/26/Obama-Proposes-Lower-Safety-Standards-to-haul-oil-by-Trains-than-by-Ships

    The newly proposed DOT oil train safety rules mean NOTHING if North Dakota Bakken producers are still ALLOWED to transport explosive “natural gas liquids” (NGLs), and deadly combustible H2S, in the SAME tanker car as the crude oil.


    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      Ron, I’d take the oil industry over the rantings over a 9/11 conspiracy monger.

      • caljones

        I know what you mean about 9-11 (the only day in the history of the world where the laws of physics didn’t apply). The government’s theory is complete mongering.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      And increased tanker car safety does make a difference. Bakken crude is no more volatile than ethanol (which crazies like you never say a word about), so safer tanker cars means its less likely that any volatile liquid shipped using them will spill.

      That’s improvement.

  • Ron Schalow

    The Keystone XL pipeline is not being built to carry Bakken crude oil. If it were; why do they need to build it north, over the border? North Dakota isn’t in Canada.


    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      It is being built to serve multiple markets, you dolt, including the Canadian oil sands and the Bakken shale play.

  • Ron Schalow
    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      It got caught in the spam filter, probably because you’re a ranting conspiracy monger with an extremely low reputation at Disqus.

  • Charles Hammond Jr

    If only we had a tried and true system that could handle both constant and variable loads of crude oil that was safer and easier to maintain and monitor!

    Oh wait!

  • Dallas

    Tessa: Well written but given the source material, I disagree with most of your conclusions.

    Your gramdma is a wonderful writer and you have potential. Actually, I could learn a lot from yur grandmother too……