Fracking Oil: Like Normal Oil, But Just A Bit More Highly Explosive?

Officials say chemicals from the fracking process may have led to last month's deadly train explosion that vaporized dozens of Québecois.
By @TrishaMarczakMP |
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    When a train carrying 72 cars of North Dakota oil derailed in Quebec July 6, killing 47 people and destroying a small community, the attention focussed on what went wrong on the rails. Yet a new railway-sponsored investigation is indicating the concern should have been directed at the substances found inside the oil tankers.

    Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the company that owned the train involved in the derailment, has been banned from operating in Canada, prompting the company to file for bankruptcy. While specifics regarding what went wrong have not been fully investigated, it’s the rail company that is taking the brunt of the punishment.

    Before pointing a finger at a company that operates heavily in the New England area, the U.S. Federal Rail Administration (FRA) is launching an investigation to uncover what chemicals were laced into the oil being transported through Canada.

    On the list of potential culprits is hydrochloric acid, a chemical used in fracking, that is corrosive and excessively flammable. Hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic chemical, is also on the list of potential contaminants.

    At the time of the Quebec train disaster, before body counts were issued, authorities put the death toll at 15, with 37 missing, some of whom authorities claimed could have been vaporized in the explosion.

    Crude oil in itself is not capable of causing the type of explosion seen in Quebec, according to Anthony Hatch, an analyst with more than two decades of monitoring the rail industry.

    “Crude historically has not been considered in the highest category of hazmat,” Hatch told the Bangor Daily News. “The risks have been considered to be environmental, not to humans. Perhaps Bakken crude should be considered in a higher category.”

    The FRA thinks so, too.

    In a letter penned to the American Petroleum Institute, the FRA addresses concerns related to chemicals in crude oil, citing damage to rail trucks and safety concerns.

    “FRA’s review of the OTMA data also indicates an increasing number of incidents involving damage to tank cars in crude oil service in the form of severe corrosion of the internal surface of the tank, manways covers, and valves and fitting,” the letter states. “A possible cause is contamination of the crude oil by materials used in the fracturing process that are corrosive to the tank car and service equipment.”

    While some used the Quebec disaster to promote the 1,700 Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta to Texas, pipelines aren’t immune to dangers relating to oil contamination.

    In May, Enbridge pipeline company alerted the Federal Regulatory Commission that dangerously high levels of hydrogen sulfide had been detected in North Dakota oil tankers — levels dangerous enough to cause serious health concerns, including respiratory failure, related to minimal exposure.


    Covering its back

    Transport of oil by rail has increased tremendously over the past seven years.  According to the Association of American Railroads, transportation of crude oil has increased by 443 percent since 2005.

    That increase is directly related to the fracking boom in the U.S., particularly North Dakota, which provided the oil that led to the Quebec derailment disaster.

    From the perspective of the rail industry, the use of added chemicals in products defined as “crude oil” is directly damaging to its business. In addition to corrosiveness of tank cars, it also leaves the rail industry on the line when it comes to proper labeling of transports.

    “Without further information in that regard, and in relation to the accuracy of crude oil classifications being made, FRA (Federal Rail Administration) can only speculate as to the number of potential crude oil shipments that are being made in AAR (Association of American Railroads) class tank cars in violation,” the letter states.

    The investigation into the Quebec disaster will seek to identify whether the oil industry was doing just that when it entered into an agreement to haul North Dakota “crude oil.”

    The FRA’s investigation will use data relating to the classification of the shipper’s “crude oil,” along with information on loading practices. Laboratory tests on crude oil may also be conducted to ensure that the oil labeled by the shipper is accurately defined.

    Canadian authorities are also looking into the matter. While taking into account the derailment of the train, they’re also questioning what materials led to an explosion capable of vaporizing humans and materials. Investigators have visited North Dakota’s oil fields.

    “We did take samples from the tank cars to get a better understanding of what was actually carried in them and verifying that against the shipping documents,” Chris Krepski, a spokesperson for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada told Bloomberg News. “It’s safe to say we’re looking at everything.”


    By rail and pipeline

    The railroad companies aren’t the only ones concerned about toxic cocktails of crude oil and explosive material. The pipeline company Enbridge warned authorities in May that North Dakota oil contained elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, a chemical that is both toxic and flammable.

    The problem for Enbridge was that such materials were being transported to its terminals, where the company was not aware. Because it was not known, Enbridge claims employees were put at severe risk. The chemical is colorless vapor, but does have a rotten egg-like smell.

    “Exposure at 50 ppm (parts per million) or above could cause shock, convulsions, coma or death,” Enbridge said in the filing. At 200 ppm, respiratory failure can occur.

    According to Energy Capital and the Minot Daily News, Enbridge detected 1,200 ppm of hydrogen sulfide in one tank, stemming from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields. In its May 8 filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Enbridge requested a one day notice be issued, limiting the regulated concentration of hydrogen sulfide in all oil transported to its site to 5 ppm.

    On May 10, Plains Marketing, L.P., an oil company operating in North Dakota, filed a motion to intervene, claiming that, if new regulations were promptly implemented, it could have to temporarily shut down its operations, resulting in the loss of 4,000 barrels per day of “crude oil.” Plains also disputed the test Enbridge conducted regarding extremely elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide.

    Enbridge’s pipeline system stretches nearly 1,000 miles, from Montana through Minnesota, with the ability to pump more than 200,000 barrels of “crude oil” per day. Residents living in Northern Minnesota also live near Enbridge pipelines that ship Canadian tar sands, rich with Benzene, another carcinogenic chemical used in pipelines.


    Hiding behind trade secrets?

    In May, the Obama administration announced new laws that would require companies to disclose chemicals they use in the fracking process. There was one major loophole to this so-called regulation, though: the law allows companies to hide disclosure of any chemical deemed a “trade secret.”

    Relying on the industry-run system, companies voluntarily provide information on chemicals used in each specific well. In order to access the information, a user has to have a specific well number — rough location is not enough to retrieve information.

    In light of the Quebec train disaster and the FRA’s investigation into chemicals being founded in fracked oil, regulations that allow oil companies to hide chemical use are once again being brought to light.

    While it was previously thought that the combination of chemicals, water and silica sand shot into the ground was only of concern for groundwater contamination, the new investigation alleges that, even after fracked oil is extracted and removed from the water combination, it still could contain chemicals used in the drilling process.

    According to the Society of Petroleum Engineers, hydrochloric acid is on the list of commonly used chemicals in the fracking process, at least in North Dakota.

    This article originally appeared on MintPress on August 15, 2013.

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