Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones report on Bloomberg that as federal regulators continue investigating why tank cars on three trains carrying North Dakota crude oil have exploded in the past eight months, energy experts say part of the problem might be that some producers are deliberately leaving too much propane in their product, making the oil riskier to transport by rail. Sweet light crude from the Bakken Shale formation has long been known to be especially rich in volatile natural gas liquids like propane and while there's no way to completely eliminate natural gas liquids from crude, well operators are supposed to use separators at the wellhead to strip out gases before shipping the oil. The worry is that some producers are adjusting the pressure settings to leave in substantial amounts of natural gas liquids and purposefully selling their crude "fluffed up" with propane to maximize their profits." (Read more, below.)"'There is a strong suspicion that a number of producers are cheating. They generally want to simply fill up the barrel and sell it—and there are some who are not overly worried about quality,' says Alan J. Troner. 'I suspect that some are cheating and this is a suspicion that at least some refiners share.' As an oil train shakes, rattles and rolls toward the refinery, the propane begins to separate from the liquid and turning into gas. If one of those cars ruptures, the propane gas inside will likely make contact with outside air. If the gas is ignited—perhaps by a spark thrown off when the car rips open or maybe a spark thrown up from steel wheels scraping over steel tracks—the car can explode. Then the burning car can act like a blowtorch on the tanker next to it and at that point, railcars can explode in domino fashion. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently issued a safety alert that recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. 'It's typical of this type of oil. So it's not surprising. There's no mystery to it especially if it were in a tanker not meant to carry that type of fluid,' says Ramanan Krishnamoorti referring to the much-criticized DOT-111, a black, torpedo-shaped railcar designed in the 1960s that has become the workhorse of the crude-rail industry. Washington doesn't appear to be in a rush to address the problem. On January 23, investigators at the US National Transportation Safety Board made broad recommendations that would have big consequences: They said crude oil should meet the same restrictions as toxic chemicals, which must be routed on tracks away from population centers. 'The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn't exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up,' says NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. 'While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.'"
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