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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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The Bakken Oil Boom Is Facing A New Bottleneck


Bakken drillers could struggle to grow oil production as they may soon run into transportation bottlenecks.

The latest snag comes from a new law in Washington State, set to take effect at the start of 2020, that would prevent refineries in the state from unloading oil from a rail car that has a Reid vapor pressure over 9 psi. That metric is a measurement of volatility in the oil. Importantly, a lot of oil from the Bakken has vapor pressure over that threshold.

The law is aimed at reducing the risk of explosive train derailments that reached epidemic levels earlier this decade. Most infamously, the 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec derailment and explosion leveled the town, killing 47 people. But that was not the only one. As the shale frenzy took off in the 2010s, oil production outstripped the ability to move it, and the industry began to ship oil in ever-increasing amounts on flimsy railcars. Explosive derailments hit Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, North Dakota, Oregon, Ontario, among other places.

There are multiple reasons why trains kept derailing, as Justin Mikulka, an investigative journalist, details in his new book, “Bomb Trains,” a comprehensive account of the accidents and their causes. For instance, oil is often shipped on trains that use braking systems that haven’t changed much since the 19th century. Also, while the industry is phasing out the use of the old DOT-111 train cars, which have been likened to “tin cans” carrying explosive oil, new cars that were supposed to be safer have had their own problems. A June 2018 derailment in Iowa, involving the supposedly safer DOT-117R design, saw at least 30 railcars derailed and 14 of them leaked around 230,000 gallons of oil.

Moreover there has been very little action from federal regulators despite the string of explosive incidents. A few safety regulations imposed during the Obama era – that oil trains have two-person crews, and a requirement that oil trains have modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems by 2021 – were repealed by the Trump administration. Related: Major Setback For EVs Could Delay Peak Oil Demand

But another big reason why some of the derailments were so explosive was because of the presence of natural gas liquids. That is particularly true for oil coming from the Bakken, the source of a lot of oil-by-rail shipments. NGLs such as butane or propane can readily ignite if a train derails, and their presence in the oil makes it rail shipments a dangerous proposition.

Those liquids could be removed in order to make the oil safer to ship in a process called “stabilization,” but that would require additional costs that companies do not want to take on. “[Much like the issue with pipelines, building the necessary stabilization capacity in North Dakota would take years and potentially billions of dollars,” Mikulka wrote in his book.

Bakken oil shipped along with the array of natural gas liquids carries a much higher Reid vapor pressure than it otherwise would if the trains were holding just crude oil. For instance, the oil that exploded in Lac-Mégantic had “volatility comparable to that of gasoline,” an investigation by the Canadian government found after the disaster. The Reid vapor pressure for the oil that exploded in Lac-Mégantic was just above 9.0 psi.

In 2015, a derailed train exploded in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. That train was carrying oil with a vapor pressure of 13.9 psi. The Lynchburg, VA derailment and explosion in 2015 had oil with a psi of 14.3.

With an eye on the volatility of oil carrying a high volume of NGLs, Washington State put limits on refineries unloading oil with a psi of 9.0 or higher.

Lynn Helms, North Dakota’s director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, said that lowering oil below that threshold would impact profitability for Bakken drillers. If they had to lower pressure, they would have to remove butane from the crude stream, which would cut into profits. Helms said the extra cost could disrupt 150,000-200,000 bpd of Bakken oil shipments. Related: Can Renewable Natural Gas Actually Compete With Diesel?

As a result, North Dakota sent a petition to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), asking it to use federal authority to block the law in Washington State because it would essentially put a limit on the volume of crude-by-rail shipments.

“PHMSA has full regulatory authority over crude-by-rail shipments and what's considered hazardous and what's not and how it's transported and all that,” Lynn Helms, North Dakota’s top oil regulator, told reporters at a press briefing on July 16.

But after a long list of explosions in recent years, would Washington’s law reduce the risk from oil-by-rail shipments? “It should be an excellent start,” Mikulka told Oilprice.com in an email. “The industry requires vapor pressures of 9psi for pipelines and ocean going tankers. The way to achieve the lower vapor pressure is by removing the volatile NGL components that make it explosive.”

Notably, Washington State’s law only hits refineries that increase their shipments by 10 percent above 2018 levels. In other words, it won’t block rail shipments into Washington if volumes stay at 2018 levels, but the law could put an upper limit on what refiners are allowed to import by rail. In the first quarter of 2019, roughly 175,000 bpd of oil was shipped into Washington from out of state. Nearly 95 percent of it came from North Dakota.

(Click to enlarge)

Bakken shale drillers, already rocked by low oil prices and struggling to turn a profit, could be negatively impacted by Washington’s law. While they could look elsewhere to sell additional barrels of oil, they might face steeper discounts. The explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery from a few weeks ago removed another major source of oil-by-rail shipments for the Bakken. That alone could impose a $3 to $4 per barrel discount on a portion of oil coming from the Bakken, according to North Dakota Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms.


As Mikulka notes in his book, the Trump administration has done little on the regulatory front as far as oil-by-rail shipments go, but the few actions the government has taken involved rolling back some safety standards. He expects the administration to side with North Dakota on this issue, but noted that such a decision would be the subject of legal challenges.

The question is important because crude-by-rail shipments are on the rise. After declining following the oil bust in 2015-2016, shipments began to increase again late last year. The U.S. shipped around 620,000 bpd by rail in the first quarter, up from about 450,000 bpd in the same period a year earlier. “This issue certainly isn't going away any time soon,” Mikulka said.

(Click to enlarge)

By Nick Cunningham, Oilprice.com

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