Oil Trains

DOT-111 and AAR-211 class rail tankers pass by on the background as a man works at the Union Pacific rail yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Aug. 8, 2012.

The Bakken is big business, but it's also a hazardous one.

Safety measures become paramount to ensure the people who live and work in the impacted areas can do so without fear of losing land, limb or even lives.

Safety issues are not taken lightly by most in the industry, and others have learned to make it a top priority based on past mistakes. Enbridge, a pipeline company, shifted its design standards to a new level after its pipeline ruptured four years ago and spilled a million gallons of crude oil in Michigan, contaminating 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

"It shook our organization to the core," Enbridge Vice President Paul Fisher said. "We need to operate in a safe and reliable manner. We need to regain public trust."

At a recent pipeline summit in Bismarck, Fisher and other pipeline company leaders along with state regulators and officials stressed the importance of not just building infrastructure to meet demand, but to build it with every safety precaution in place.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak shared the improvements her office has made to its siting, enforcement and reclamation guidelines to hold industry more accountable when putting in pipe. The commission has changed some laws to enable a more efficient siting process, implemented tougher penalties for law violators, amped up inspections, fined numerous violators of the 8-1-1 "Call before you dig" law and beefed up reclamation standards.

Due to recent pipeline failures in North Dakota, fears are growing with landowners. Any pipeline breach is handled by the state health department which has become much more transparent with information on pipeline incidents following the Tesoro pipeline spill that sent more than 20,000 barrels of oil seeping into a wheat field near Tioga. The agency's chief, Dave Glatt, ensures the public that the state has the appropriate coordination in place with federal, state and tribal representatives to respond quickly to any incidents. But it still requires effort from all parties, so he urged producers to maintain the integrity of the pipelines they operate.

"It comes back to the planning and maintenance of the system which is imperative as you move forward," Glatt said.

The state is also taking a closer look at how it can give greater oversight to oil pipelines. Fedorchak said she believes the state should develop its own monitoring program for oil pipelines to provide more accountability and "provide an in-state touch of monitoring of this important and growing infrastructure."

"We're in the crosshairs"

While pipelines are arguably the safest mode of transportation for the hazardous material, their reach is limited, so the state relies heavily on rail to get Bakken crude to market. But rail bears its own burdens attempting to guarantee safety.

Continental Resources, a top oil producer in North Dakota yielding approximately 88,000 barrels a day, is led by billionaire oilman Harold Hamm. He addressed the rail safety issue at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in May by citing the North Dakota Petroleum Council's Bakken oil characteristics study which proved the crude is not more flammable or prone to explosions than any other oil.

"First of all, we had to clear the air and do this study," Hamm said. "This idea that it was more flammable than other API oil ... we knew better but we had to go through all the exercise and do it. So that was the first step, and that's been done, and that ought to allay everybody's fears."

Hamm said Continental's contracted rail carriers work diligently to ensure every transport is a safe one, but everyone can do better.

"We can't have any more issues on this subject, it's got to be done in an absolute safe manner," he said.

He warned industry leaders that any blunder could cost them everything.

"If we have anything, they're going to shut us down," Hamm said. "So many people want to stop fossil fuel use and production. They don't have anything to take its place, but they want to stop it. We're in the crosshairs."

Crude oil trains have been scrutinized after the high profile train derailments in Lac-Megantic, Quebec and Casselton, North Dakota last year. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Association of American Railroads have initiated new safety practices in response to the fiery accidents including slower train speeds, more track inspections and better emergency response plans. In addition, new tank car standards are expected to be announced at the end of the year by the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Until then, the rail and oil industries have made changes to exceed the latest standards. BNSF Railway plans to buy 5,000 new crude oil tank cars designed with thicker walls and better safety mechanisms.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council said the oil industry should be credited for phasing out many of the older DOT-111 rail cars and replacing them with newer CPC-1232 cars in an effort to increase safety. She said that 60 percent of rail cars moving across the country today are the newer cars because of industry's actions.

However, the rail cars themselves cannot guarantee the oil will arrive safely at its destination. On April 30 when a tank car exploded in West Virginia and leaked oil into the James River, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx confirmed the tank car was built to the newer CPC-1232 standard. Cutting said rain caused the soil to be washed out under the tracks in West Virginia, making the derailment possible.

"You're adding additional layers of steel and insulation, but there is a point a rail car will breach," Cutting said. "You're reducing the probability of breach, but you cannot reduce the probability to zero."

Protecting those who work in the Bakken

On a large scale, transporting the light, sweet crude is at the forefront of safety concerns, but at a local, on-site level, the employees who are working to produce those million barrels of oil a day in North Dakota are counting on safe practices to enable them to go home at the end of their shift.

The North Dakota Safety Council offers training and support to companies to better educate employees so accidents don't occur. Dustin Austin is a consultant and trainer for the council and said the biggest issue he's seeing is that many of the workers coming in are not familiar with the oil and gas industry and the hazards associated with it.

"It's not that the industry is running roughshod, we just have a lot of people who are not used to these systems we have, not used to all the measures the industry takes to go above and beyond," Austin said.

The NDSC is always formulating new courses to train employees, supervisors and safety professionals and they design them to exceed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. Austin said the employees need to learn how to work in the hazardous environment; supervisors need to know how to lead and enforce safety and then management needs to be trained to get the system set up and provide support for its workers.

"This is the model all good companies are using," Austin said, "because as dangerous as the hazards are out there, it really does open up the door to a lot of injuries."

Arm and hand injuries are common due to using the equipment incorrectly, and Austin said there are a lot of falls. OSHA collects the injury data and funnels the information to groups like the NDSC to help determine solutions.

"There's a lot that goes into supporting the oil and gas industry," Austin said. "The way North Dakota was set up previously, none of this was up here. There was not a lot of activity or a need for enforcement. But with the level of hazards it's now dealing with, the industry hasn't had the resources it needs."

TrainND, a program through four state community colleges, gives new industry employees hands-on experience and an opportunity to learn safety standards. At Williston State College, the TrainND center is expanding to accommodate the growing need for more education.

"The building will overlook our training field where we have a service rig, and we're going to make it functional, so when someone is training on an oil site, it will be similar to what we have," TrainND's Deanette Piesik said. "We have so many people coming to North Dakota from other states that have never been in the oil field and have no idea what a pumping unit is, so it's nice to show them this is what they'll be working on."

Austin said the training centers are a valuable piece to safe operations. Having worked in many states, Austin said the North Dakota environment has also been a key aspect to greater safety.

"A lot of the companies that are up here are North Dakota companies and North Dakota is a very unique state," Austin said. "The people are very honest, caring people - both business owners and the local communities. That really does come out in these owners," he continued. "They do care about injuring people, they do care if they have people working for them on drugs, or if they have enough sleep or enough time to get the job done safely. When you combine that with the national companies coming in here that have dealt with this for a long time and have the systems and cultures in place, it's really set up for success in safety."

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