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Other Views: Resolve debate over oil conditioning vs. stabilizing

It’s easy to dismiss the Dakota Resource Council when it claims North Dakota isn’t doing enough to prevent oil trains from exploding. After all, the council is an environmental group, and its hostility to fossil fuels in general and extensive drilling in North Dakota in particular hurts its credibility on this issue.

It’s also easy to wave off other activist critics who have no patience with the give-and-take of politics and are quick to attribute decisions they disagree with to greed.

But criticisms of North Dakota’s policies also are being offered by sources that are harder to ignore. And to a person, they’re saying the same thing as the DRC and the others:

They’re saying Bakken crude oil needs to be stabilized, not just conditioned (as North Dakota regulators are promising it will be).

The fact that this claim keeps resurfacing suggests North Dakota is doing a poor job of proving it wrong. The state — including UND’s petroleum engineers — should take another look, and either refute the claim decisively or admit that the critics have a point.

For example, consider the views of New York State Assemblyman Phil Steck, a Democrat whose district includes a stretch of Hudson River waterfront between the cities of Albany and Troy.

A fair amount of North Dakota crude gets shipped to the Port of Albany by train; and on Friday, Steck “called on federal regulators to require stabilization of volatile Bakken crude before it’s shipped by rail from North Dakota shale oil fields,” the Albany Times-Union reported.

Said Steck in his letter to federal officials, “Conditioning crude oil is not enough — the dangers of transporting highly flammable, volatile crude across the country are too great.”

Then there’s The New York Times’ Editorial Board, which also weighed in on the subject Friday. “Producers call it ‘stabilizing’ the oil, a process that involves separating light gases, which in turn reduces vapor pressures and makes the oil safer to transport,” the Times noted in an editorial, which went on to urge all parties to “find answers as quickly as possible to an increasingly serious problem.”

And then there’s David Thomas, contributing editor for the trade journal Railway Age, who in September wrote the following much-quoted passage:

“Simply put, North Dakota crude will have to be lightly pressure-cooked to boil off a fraction of the volatile ‘light ends’ before shipment. This conditioning lowers the ignition temperature of crude oil — but not by much. It leaves in solution most of the culprit gases, including butane and propane.

“Even the industry itself says conditioning would not make Bakken crude meaningfully safer for transportation, though it would make the state’s crude more consistent from one well to another.

“The only solution for safety is stabilization, which evaporates and re-liquefies nearly all of the petroleum gases for separate delivery to refiners. Stabilization is voluntarily and uniformly practiced in the Eagle Fork formation in Texas, whose untreated crude is even more volatile than that fracked from the Bakken Formation straddling Montana, North Dakota, and Canada’s Saskatchewan Province.”

So, here’s the question for North Dakota’s petroleum engineers and other experts. And it’s a question that has real urgency, as last week’s fireball over the West Virginia landscape shows:

Are Assemblyman Steck, Railway Age and The New York Times right or wrong?

The Grand Forks Herald Editorial Board formed this opinion.

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