Fiery Oil-Train Derailments Prompt Calls For Less Flammable Oil Trains carrying oil from North Dakota pass through American towns daily — and sometimes they derail and explode. The oil industry is now under pressure to make the oil less volatile before shipping.

Fiery Oil-Train Derailments Prompt Calls For Less Flammable Oil

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North Dakota's Bakken oil fields produce more than a million barrels a day, making the state the nation's second-largest oil producer, after Texas. Most of its oil leaves the state by train because there aren't enough pipelines. Those trains run next to homes and through downtowns. After several fiery accidents, oil companies are under pressure to make their oil less explosive before loading it onto rail cars. From Prairie Public Radio, Emily Guerin reports.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: Lynn Wolff is standing next to a fountain at a park in downtown Bismarck, North Dakota. Just over the fence, beyond the grassy lawn and porch swing, a train rumbles by. About once a day, one of those trains carries crude oil, and that's what Wolff worries about.


LYNN WOLFF: I believe last December, we got the wake-up call. And that was the explosion and derailment of an oil train in Casselton, North Dakota.

GUERIN: Wolff's an activist with the environmental group Dakota Resource Council. He's referring to a crash in farmland just outside the small town of Casselton. No one was hurt, but the crash could have been deadly had it happened in town.

GARY STOCKERT: Depending on the proximity, the assumption was that some of the buildings were devastated or destroyed completely.

GUERIN: Gary Stockert is Bismarck's emergency manager. This summer, he and other officials here ran through a mock oil train derailment.

STOCKERT: We exercise with the assumption that we had, you know, 60 or 70 casualties.

GUERIN: Around the country, cities and towns with oil train traffic are preparing for similar disasters.

DAVE CHRISTIANSON: Gov. Dayton in Minnesota is concerned primarily about the safety of people in on oil train routes and, in particular, about the fact that this is a very volatile oil.

GUERIN: Dave Christianson is a transportation official in neighboring Minnesota, whose governor, Mark Dayton, has joined activists in asking North Dakota to force oil companies to stabilize the oil. That means making it less explosive by separating out the flammable liquids. Last month, North Dakota's governor, Jack Dalrymple, convened a public hearing on just that.


KEITH LILIE: Good morning. My name's Keith Lilie. Oh, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Could you raise your right hand? Do you promise to tell the truth in this case?

LILIE: I do.

GUERIN: Keith Lilie's with the Norwegian oil giant Statoil, which has a big presence in the Bakken. He was in a room full of oilmen in suits and cowboy boots. They came from places like Oklahoma City and Houston. Statoil's Keith Lilie says he opposes having to build expensive tanks that would heat the oil and separate out flammable liquids, like butane.

LILIE: Statoil believes that the current conditioning of crude oil is sufficient for safely transporting Bakken crude oil by truck, rail and pipeline.

GUERIN: Another industry executive, Eric Bayes of Oasis Petroleum, asked what companies are supposed to do with those explosive liquids once they've been separated from the oil.

ERIC BAYES: You create another product stream that you have no infrastructure in place for. The industry never wants to take steps which increase the cost of production, even if it's in the best interest of everybody.

GUERIN: That's energy economist Philip Verleger. He calls the industry shortsighted in opposing the new safety rules and says it could hurt itself if it there's another serious accident.

PHILIP VERLEGER: I think that the movement of crude oil by rail is one accident away from being terminated.

GUERIN: Activist Lynn Wolff, with Dakota Resource Council, supports new rules that would make the oil less explosive. And he says it's not just to protect people in his state.

WOLFF: These bomb trains have been in Virginia and Alabama -have blown up there as well.

GUERIN: Federal officials in Washington are also considering ways to make oil trains safer, such as strengthening tank cars. As for making the oil less flammable, officials in North Dakota say, they'll make a decision by the end of the year. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin in Bismarck, North Dakota.

SIEGEL: That story came from Inside Energy, which is a public media collaboration that focuses on America's energy issues.

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