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Off track: Oil-by-rail sector mostly ignoring call for data, US officials say

Press Photo by April Baumgarten Oil rail cars wait to be hooked up near the State Avenue railroad crossing in Dickinson. Oil-by-rail shippers are refusing to share data, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Friday.

Few oil-by-rail shippers have heeded calls for information to prevent dangerous mishaps on the tracks, the U.S. Department of Transportation said on Friday as it named the three companies it said have cooperated.

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Testing data has so far been tallied from ExxonMobil, Continental Resources Inc. and Savage Companies, the agency said.

Several other companies on Friday said that they would respond or had given data to DOT officials in North Dakota.

“We have shared it with their people in the field, voluntarily,” said John Roper, spokesman for Hess Corp.

ExxonMobil gave the DOT 15 samples in mid-April, Savage gave 12 in late February and Continental provided one in mid-March, according to a chart on the DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s website.

Regulators are eyeing the Bakken as the origin of several shipments such as this week’s derailment in Lynchburg, Va., in which several tank cars jumped the tracks and burst into flames.

Officials have warned since January that light Bakken fuel might be more dangerous on the tracks than other conventional crude oil. Unresolved questions about its volatility have infused a broader debate about oil-by-rail safety.

A DOT spokesperson said while safety is the department’s mission, “we believe it is also a shared responsibility” with industry.

“As the chart released today demonstrates, to date, only a small number of companies have provided any data of significance to PHMSA. In the meantime, we continue to collect our own data. All options remain on the table as we do everything we can to ensure the safe transportation of crude oil,” the spokesperson said.

Crude oil can be transported in a standard tank car, but some industry officials have said Bakken fuel may be more similar to flammable gas like propane, which must be moved in sturdier equipment.

The DOT this week sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget a plan to improve tank car standards for trains carrying highly flammable materials. Details of those proposed rules have not been made public.

The samples provided to the DOT are being tested for various characteristics, including hydrogen sulfide, boiling point, flash point and vapor pressure and more.

A fiery derailment last July that destroyed the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, has been followed by several oil-by-rail mishaps in the United States, including just outside of Casselton.

The DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sent inspectors into the field last summer to examine the situation.

“They’ve been out there at least five times fairly recently,” said Larry Springer, spokesman for fuel transport company Enbridge, of PHMSA inspections in the Bakken.

Federal officials fined three oil companies for wrongly handling Bakken fuel in February, but the $93,000 in penalties against Hess, Marathon Oil Corp. and Whiting Petroleum Corp. have already been modified and may yet be reduced further.

PHMSA has collected more than 80 fuel samples, and officials have said the DOT could offer preliminary findings soon on its review of Bakken fuel.

One trade group, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), has tapped a third party to collect data from its members.

The AFPM, a voice for the refining sector, has said it hopes that arm’s-length reporting will protect proprietary data while still satisfying regulators.

North Dakota’s oil industry group has also commissioned testing for an independent study into Bakken crude’s volatility — the North Dakota Petroleum Council plans to present preliminary findings at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference this month.

DOT officials recently singled out the American Petroleum Institute, the leading national voice for the oil industry, for failing to deliver on a January promise to share data. An API spokesman on Friday said the group was striving to answer officials’ questions.

Regulators have not received information from Plains All American, the midstream energy company whose 105-rail car shipment caught fire in Virginia this week, or other large shippers and terminal operators including Hess, EOG, Musket and refiners such as Tesoro and Phillips 66.

Press reporter Katherine Lymn contributed to this report.