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The Globe and Mail

U.S. questions lobby group’s data on light crude safety

A aerial image shows a train entering a depot along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail line outside of Williston, North Dakota March 12, 2013.

© Shannon Stapleton / Reuters/Reuters

The U.S. government is calling into question a new report produced by the oil industry that declares volatile crude oil safe to ship by rail, despite a string of massive train explosions across North America in recent months.

A week after the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) issued a report saying lighter forms of oil pose no significant risks compared with other forms of crude, the U.S. Department of Transportation has demanded to see the data.

The report from the AFPM, a lobby group for oil refineries, argued that oil from the Bakken region that straddles North Dakota, Montana, Manitoba and Saskatchewan is potentially volatile, but not more dangerous than other crude. A train carrying Bakken oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., last summer, killing 47 people. Since then, trains have derailed in Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia, causing explosions, and forcing the evacuation of nearby communities in some cases.

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In a letter to the oil lobby group, Department of Transportation (DOT) administrator Cynthia Quarterman told the AFPM that the U.S. government isn't clear on how the industry collected its data, and whether the information is reliable, and has demanded it produce more details on the study.

"Recent derailments in Canada, Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia have endangered communities, affected the environment, and caused significant evacuations and property damage," Ms. Quarterman said. "We ask that you provide us with the individual test results that form the basis of your report … so that we may fully understand and assess both the validity and the reliability of your data."

The AFPM said it surveyed 17 of its members that handle Bakken crude and received data on 1,400 oil samples, and heralded the report as a vote of confidence for Bakken oil, acknowledging that the lighter crude is volatile, but is entirely within regulations to ship by train.

However, the DOT wants to see specific data for each oil sample cited in the report, including how each sample was selected for testing. The government also wants to know on what date, and from which sources, the oil was collected. It also wants to know what quality control steps were used in collecting the oil, to ensure accuracy and consistency in results.

Ms. Quarterman said the DOT also wants to know why some samples were subjected to "a broader range of testing – including studies of boiling point, flashpoint and vapour pressure – while others were not.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail a week ago, AFPM president Charles Drevna, refused to say where the oil samples were taken from, or name which refineries were involved in the testing process, citing anti-trust concerns. Mr. Drevna also would not comment on what methods were used to ensure that the samples taken were random, and not selectively chosen.

Investigators in Canada and the U.S. have raised several concerns since the Lac-Mégantic disaster that the oil being transported is highly volatile and that moving it in trains that can be upwards of 100 cars long poses unusual risks. Investigators have also questioned whether the oil is more prone to vaporization, which could makes it more risky to ship, and more corrosive on aging tank cars.

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The business of shipping oil by rail has grown exponentially in recent years amid a shortage of pipeline capacity.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, in Leipzig, Germany, at the International Transportation Forum, said the Canadian government is concerned about this growth. "This is exactly what we've seen happening in the past three years, which is, when pipeline capacity becomes constrained, the goods are going to find their way onto the rail," she said.

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