Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Feb. 7, 2023

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BNSF executive: Oil train safety can improve

By , Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

As questions continue to swirl about the safety of transporting crude oil by rail, BNSF Railway’s top executive acknowledged Tuesday that the process could be safer, and said his company welcomes the regulatory push toward more modern tank cars.

In an interview with The Columbian, BNSF Executive Chairman Matthew Rose noted railroads like his are required by federal law to haul crude oil and other hazardous materials as part of their “common carrier” obligations. In the case of crude, phasing out older tank cars could improve safety, Rose said. Many have already been replaced, but plenty remain on U.S. tracks.

“We think that the risk associated with hauling crude oil can go down greatly, and that’s what we’re focused on,” he said. Rose and other BNSF officials stopped in Vancouver as part of a visit to the Northwest this week.

This year, BNSF announced plans to add 5,000 “state-of-the-art” tank cars to its fleet for carrying crude oil. Those cars could be in production as soon as next year, said BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace, though it’s unclear when they might be in use.

The amount of crude being transported by rail has jumped sharply in recent years, and fiery derailments and explosions have amplified worries over its safety. Fueling the increase — and several of the recent explosions — is crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.

Two to three oil trains per day already roll through Clark County and Vancouver on their way to West Coast refineries. A proposed oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver could more than double that. Rose said he supports the proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, which would connect to the BNSF main line that passes through Vancouver. The terminal would handle an average of 360,000 barrels of crude per day, making it the largest such facility in the Northwest.

Despite a string of high-profile derailments, Rose insisted that transporting oil by rail is safe. He cited an oft-repeated claim that 99.997 percent of all hazardous materials carried by train reaches its destination without incident.

“We will never have an operation that will be 100 percent accident-free,” Rose said. “What we’re trying to do with the evolution of this tank car is reduce that probability of release, and we believe that this (newer) tank car really will be a significant improvement.”

Oil stabilization

Meanwhile, a concurrent conversation has focused on the safety of Bakken oil itself. Multiple reports and analyses have found that Bakken crude is more volatile than oil from other sources due to the relatively high amount of volatile gases it contains and other characteristics. Many believe Bakken crude could be made safer by stabilization, a process that strips some of those gases from the oil before it’s transported.

That’s something most North Dakota oil producers don’t currently do. But the idea has gained at least some traction there — the North Dakota Industrial Commission has scheduled a public hearing on the subject next month.

BNSF has followed the issue closely, Rose said. That’s because the amount of volatile gas in crude oil determines how it needs to be carried, he said — and whether a newer tank car is necessary.

“If you want to ship it with that, then it needs to be in this type of tank car,” Rose said. “If you want to stabilize it, then quite frankly, it could probably go in the original (DOT-111) car.”

Rose reiterated the widespread belief that oil trains are here to stay in the Northwest. That’s partly because a major pipeline is highly unlikely to be built to the West Coast due to terrain, environmental rules and other hurdles, he said.

And as backers of a proposed mixed-use waterfront development pit their project against the Tesoro-Savage terminal, oil trains will remain a constant regardless of the outcome of either proposal, Rose said.

“There’s still going to be a lot of trains running through there,” he said. “We have to realize that whether or not this terminal is permitted or not, trains keep coming.”

Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter