US regulators said Thursday they will widen their study of crude originating from the prolific Bakken Shale formation to try and understand what makes the oil more flammable than other crudes.
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The US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said that the preliminary results of its "Bakken Blitz" inspection to ensure that the shale oil is being properly classified and described prior to transport has shown that further testing is necessary.
"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," the PHMSA said in its preliminary guidance from its ongoing inspection operation, formally known as "Operation Classification."
The operation, conducted jointly with the Federal Railroad Administration, initially focused on whether companies offering Bakken crude for sale are properly classifying it for shipment based on its chemical properties. The most flammable crudes, for instance, are classified as Class III, Packing Group 1, meaning the material is flammable and has a very low flash point.
The crude contained in the DOT-111 tank cars that caught fire earlier this week in North Dakota were classified as being Class III, Packing Group 1, an NTSB official said on December 31.
"Nonetheless, the agencies have found it necessary to expand the scope of their testing to measure other factors that would affect the proper characterization and classification of the materials," PHMSA said in its report Thursday. "PHMSA expects to have final test results in the near future for the gas content, corrosivity, toxicity, flammability and certain other characteristics of the Bakken crude oil, which should more clearly inform the proper characterization of the material."
The PHMSA said that, based on its preliminary field inspections at train terminals in the Bakken Shale region, it has "expanded the scope of lab testing to include other factors that affect proper characterization and classification such as Reid Vapor Pressure, corrosivity, hydrogen sulfide content and composition/concentration of the entrained gases in the material.
"The results of this expanded testing will further inform shippers and carriers about how to ensure that the materials are known and are properly described, classified, and characterized when being shipped."
A deeper understanding of any of the "unique hazards" of the Bakken crude will enable shippers, sellers, first responders, and federal agencies to identify any "appropriate mitigating measures that need to be taken to ensure the continued safe transportation of these materials," PHMSA said.