If you haven’t seen the video of the train carrying Bakken crude oil exploding, it is quite an impressive and scary sight. Fortunately, in the Casselton, ND incident, nobody was hurt by the explosion. But, it still leaves us with the question, should we be terrified of the train or its cargo?

The hazards of conveying explosive cargo by rail are very real and not isolated to the Casselton, ND incident. There have been a number of instances of trains carrying crude that have crashed and exploded over the last couple of years, including an incident in Quebec in July 2013 that resulted in 47 deaths, and an incident in Lynchburg, VA where six cars came off the track and ignited in April of this year.

It is important to note that in these cases the trains first derailed or crashed, and then exploded as opposed to spontaneously blowing up. The cargo was not the precipitating incident, but certainly added to the fireworks after the crash.

Trains can crash for a number of reasons including poorly maintained tracks, an obstruction, and human error. In the Casselton case the explosion occurred after the oil train and another train collided. In the Quebec case, the Transportation Safety Board reported that, “the crash was caused by a marginal rail company that put profits before safety” and three employees were charged with criminal negligence as a result. The train was braked improperly and left unattended on the main rail line, and began to run away with no driver before the crash.

It is not the cargo’s fault that rail safety is lagging. But, the cargo, rather than the train operators, is shouldering much of the blame of these incidents. It has been reported that, “[Bakken crude] is far more flammable than typical blends of oil.” And, in turn, the blame for these explosions has been put on the fact that ‘explosive’ crude is being placed in railcars that are not designed to handle explosive material. But as it turns out, this is not true. Bakken crude is not more flammable than typical blends of oil, and the railcars are designed to handle this type of cargo.

Earlier this year an independent engineering firm was contracted by the North Dakota Petroleum Council to characterize Bakken crude to find out really how dangerous Bakken crude is, and in August, their results were announced. According to the study:

“Bakken crude is consistent with light, sweet crude… and does not pose a greater risk to transport by rail than other crudes and transportation fuels… [these results] are consistent with scientific data reported by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) and the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). All of this data does not support the speculation that Bakken crude is more volatile or flammable than other light, sweet crudes.”

While the root cause of these incidents was not the crude itself, there have been instances of mislabeling of the crude oil. Mislabeling crude means that in some cases, Federal Regulators have found that crude oil has been labeled as ‘Class III, packing group II’ when a proper label would have read ‘Class III, packing group I.’ (The packing group gives information about the flash point and boiling point of the liquid. Packing group I has a lower boiling point than packing group II.) A handful of oil companies have been fined for this type of labelling error.

However, as it turns out, this type of mistake doesn’t really matter because regardless if a crude is labeled as packing group I or Packing group II, it goes into exactly the same type of railcar. Obviously, the crude should not be mislabeled. But, even if they were labeled correctly, the trains still would have crashed and the railcars still would have exploded.

The bottom line is that there is nothing uniquely dangerous about Bakken crude compared to other crude oils. Furthermore, even if there was a difference, the current labeling structure for these trains would not make crude oil transport any safer.

If we want trains carrying oil to not crash into things and explode, we have three options:

  1. Stop using oil. If we don’t use oil, we won’t need to transport oil.
  2. Make sure the trains don’t crash. This means tighter regulations on the rail companies.
  3. Transport the crude using pipelines (the safest way to transport crude oil).

There have been discussions of forcing oil companies to purchase heavier duty railcars. However, if this were enforced, it would be an incremental but expensive improvement, as it is not clear that more protection on the cars would prevent them from exploding in the event of a crash. In this author’s option, the best option is to not transport by train at all.

Train crashes are dangerous, tragic, wasteful, and often fatal. This needs to stop, but blaming Bakken crude will not solve the problem. Instead, we should focus on reducing our oil demand, making trains safer, and building pipelines.

About the author:

Scott McNally is a frequent guest blogger on Plugged In. He is a research assistant at both Stanford University and Harvard University, where he focuses on energy systems optimization and environmental policy. Scott has previously worked at the U.S. Department of Energy (ARPA-E), the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Shell Oil Company, and Austin Energy. He holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently completing a Master’s degree in Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University, and a Master’s degree in Public Policy at Harvard University. You can reach Scott via e-mail at scottmcnally at gmail dot com.

Photo credit: Photo of train car explosion in Quebec courtesy of CTV News, via Creative Commons. This train car, which was full of Bakken crude oil, exploded on July 6, 2013 after the train derailed.