How Train Accidents Involving Northern Plains Crude Affect Oklahoma’s Oil Industry

  • Joe Wertz

A series of explosive train accidents has renewed concern about the safety of transporting crude oil by rail, especially the type of crude extracted from the Northern Plains.

The most recent accident was the the fiery crash that occurred on Dec. 30 in North Dakota. No one was injured, but dramatic fireballs erupted when the train with more than 100 cars collided with another train carrying grain in the small town of Casselton.

This train accident and two others — the November 2013 derailment in Alabama, and the July 2013 derailment near Mégantic, Quebec, which left 47 dead — all carried crude from the Bakken formation, which federal officials say might be more flammable than other types of crude.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration issued the warning on Thursday. In November, the two agencies announced plans to step up testing and unannounced inspections of trains carrying Bakken crude.

The accidents and regulatory scrutiny affected shares of Oklahoma energy giant Continental Resources, a major Bakken operator, and could impact rail shipments of crude to Oklahoma from North Dakota, The Oklahoman‘s Paul Monies reports.

A tank car can hold about 700 barrels of crude. Unit trains, or rolling pipelines, typically have between 100 and 120 cars of crude. Most of the unit trains go to refiners on the East or West coasts, but some travel to Oklahoma to oil storage terminals in Cushing.

About 75 percent of the Bakken crude is shipped out by rail, the Wall Street Journal reports. Oklahoma has also experienced a surge in rail transports, Jeff Stagl of Progressive Railroading writes:

Farmrail System’s Farmrail Corp. (FMRC) is registering similar explosive traffic growth in the Anadarko Basin in western Oklahoma. Carloads in 2012 jumped 38 percent to about 18,000 compared with 2011’s total primarily because of crude traffic, says Farmrail System Chief Executive Officer George Betke.