Propane Illegally Left in Crude Oil May Be Linked to Train Explosions

A number of recent train explosions may have been partially caused by companies illegally leaving too much propane in crude oil, making it more explosive, according to a new report.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is currently investigating crude oil extracted from the Bakken shale deposits to try to determine what made it more explosive than normal during recent train derailments in North Dakota and Canada. However, several experts have indicated that they expect the agency to find that there was too much propane in the oil.

Propane and some other dangerous materials are supposed to be extracted from crude oil before it is shipped, but experts told InsideClimateNews last week that, in some cases, companies may be intentionally breaking the law and leaving a significant amount of propane in crude oil pulled from the shale, which could lead to more explosive oil.

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The propane could be left in to lower expenses, and it could also be left in because it increases the volume of oil, making it look like there is more crude oil per barrel. The PHMSA investigation is still underway.

The investigation comes after a North Dakota train crash involving 18 tanker cars of crude oil, which occurred when a BNSF Railway Company train transporting grain derailed and crashed into another BNSF train carrying crude oil in 18 DOT-111 model tanker cars.

About 2,400 people had to be evacuated from the town of Casselton as a result of the crash, which generated clouds of toxic smoke. It was at least the fourth derailment in about a year involving crude oil transport.

In November 2013, a train carrying crude oil to the Gulf Coast from North Dakota derailed causing extreme fires. Just a month prior residents of Alberta were evacuated after 13 railcars carrying oil derailed and ignited a blaze. In July 2013, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec when a runaway train transporting crude oil derailed and exploded.

On January 2, the PHMSA issued a safety alert warning (PDF) the public that Bakken crude appeared to be more volatile than other heavy crude oil.

The investigation was part of “Operation Classification” which led to an emergency order days ago putting in place new classification and shipping requirements for crude oil transported by rail.

Photo Courtesy of–mike–/ CC BY 2.0


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