North Dakota is talking about a legal challenge if Washington state adopts stricter regulations to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude oil shipped by rail. The Tribune Editorial Board hopes the two states can find common ground and avoid a court case.
A bill in the Washington Legislature would require a lower vapor pressure limit for Bakken crude shipped through the state by rail. In 2015, North Dakota began requiring companies to remove the most volatile gases from Bakken crude oil to ensure the vapor pressure doesn't exceed 13.7 pounds per square inch. State officials based that threshold on a national standard for stable crude oil, which is 14.7 psi, and figured in a margin of error of 1 psi for sampling and measuring, according to Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources.
A bill approved by the Washington Senate would require Bakken crude to have a vapor pressure of less than 9 psi. To reach that pressure, Helms said, would "devalue the crude oil immensely." He argues it would no longer make sense to ship Bakken crude to Washington state. Instead, Washington refineries would likely have to import oil from West Africa, resulting in large crude oil carriers going through Puget Sound.
Washington Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, cites safety issues as the reason for the bill that’s now in the House. There have been a number of derailments involving tanker cars. The most deadly was in Lac-Megantic near Quebec, Canada, on July 6, 2013. The disaster killed 47 people.
Helms, who testified against the bill at a Washington House committee hearing, argues the state follows recommended national safety standards. He also urged legislators to wait until a Sandia National Laboratories study launched by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Energy is completed.
"I assured them that if that study says something different than what North Dakota has adopted, we would look at making changes," Helms said.
Helms also wants the North Dakota Legislature to add $500,000 to a litigation fund so North Dakota can go to court if Washington approves the bill.
The Tribune believes a lawsuit should be the last resort. After the derailments, North Dakota worked to develop reasonable safety standards. It’s understandable why some states might have reservations about Bakken crude. Lac-Megantic was a horrendous accident and those memories don’t go away.
So it’s important that North Dakota assures Washington that our safety standards are more than adequate and commits to Helms’ promise to respond to the Sandia study. Safety is just as essential to North Dakota as to other states. There are oil trains going through North Dakota communities on a daily basis. We have suffered derailments and know how scary they can be.
If everything else fails, a lawsuit remains an option. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.