Propane May Play a Role in Crude-by-Rail Explosions

A derrick drills for oil in Weld County, Colorado. Ninety percent of wells in Colorado are fracked. 
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Clare Foran
March 6, 2014, 2 a.m.

Ad­dit­ive amounts of pro­pane in nat­ur­al gas could be a factor in a series of re­cent crude-by-rail train-car ex­plo­sions, ac­cord­ing to In­side Cli­mate News.

Nat­ur­al gas sourced from North Dakota’s Bakken form­a­tion may con­tain high­er levels of pro­pane, bu­tane, and meth­ane than gas pumped from oth­er re­gions of the coun­try. And these sub­stances could make the crude more ex­plos­ive in the event of an ac­ci­dent. Oil pro­du­cers are sup­posed to sep­ar­ate the pro­pane from the gas at the well­head. In­dustry ex­perts warn, however, that pro­du­cers may be fall­ing down on the job.

“There is a strong sus­pi­cion that a num­ber of pro­du­cers are cheat­ing. They gen­er­ally want to simply fill up the bar­rel and sell it — and there are some who are not overly wor­ried about qual­ity,” Alan J. Tron­er, pres­id­ent of Hou­s­ton-based Asia Pa­cific En­ergy Con­sult­ing, which provides re­search and ana­lys­is for oil and gas com­pan­ies, told In­side Cli­mate News.

The Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment is­sued a safety alert in Janu­ary warn­ing that Bakken crude could be more volat­ile, and more prone to ex­plo­sions, than con­ven­tion­al crude. And last month it re­leased an emer­gency or­der say­ing that ship­pers must prop­erly test and la­bel the chem­ic­al com­pos­i­tion of the crude be­fore it is loaded onto rail­cars.

Fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ors, law­makers, and in­dustry will take up the is­sue of rail safety in a hear­ing held Thursday by a Sen­ate Com­merce sub­com­mit­tee that’s sure to spot­light crude-by-rail safety.

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