By Matthew Brown and James MacPherson, AP
BILLINGS, Montana–Following a string of explosive accidents, U.S. officials said Thursday that crude oil being shipped by rail from the Northern Plains across America and Canada may be more flammable than traditional forms of oil.
A safety alert issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation warns the public, emergency responders and shippers about the potential high volatility of crude from the Bakken oil patch. The sprawling oil shale reserve is fueling the surging industry in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, which is now America’s second-largest oil producer behind Texas.
The warning declares that the Bakken’s light, sweet crude oil may be different from traditional heavy crudes because it is prone to ignite at a lower temperature. Experts say lighter crudes, which contain more natural gas, have a much lower “flash point” — the temperature at which vapors given off by the oil can ignite.
The government’s warning comes after a huge explosion on Monday caused by a crude train derailment near Casselton, North Dakota. No one was hurt, but worries about toxic fumes prompted the evacuation of hundreds of residents from the small eastern North Dakota town.
The oil boom in the Bakken has reduced U.S. reliance on imported oil and brought thousands of jobs to the region. But as companies increasingly rely on trains instead of pipelines to get that oil to lucrative coastal markets, public safety in communities bisected by rail lines has become a major concern.
In July, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed. Another oil train derailed and exploded in Alabama in November, causing no deaths but releasing an estimated 749,000 gallons (2.83 million liters) of oil from 26 tanker cars.