The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

“Flexibility” has emerged as the operative word in a proposed crude oil conditioning standard being developed by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. Director Lynn Helms said he is summarizing some 1,200 pages of comment and testimony about how best to prepare volatile Bakken crude for transport. All well and good, but just how flexible “flexibility” will be should be a primary concern.

The drive to “condition” Bakken crude that is transported in rail tank cars accelerated following several derailments and explosions of oil trains, including a spectacular collision/derailment and explosion near Casselton, N.D., last December. Three reports about characteristics of Bakken crude are in the public record and will play a part in Helms’ work.

The aim is to remove certain volatile components of North Dakota’s light crude oil, thus making it less likely to flash to flame and explode in a train accident. Helms said his department will propose a standard to the Industrial Commission next month. The means by which the industry meets the standard likely will include various operating practices. The commission imposes the rule. Good, as far as it goes.

Helms added that his department’s flexibility approach is the best way to go because, “We certainly don’t want at this point … to pick a winner or loser in that discussion.” Really?

Once again, Helms and company are so focused on the industry’s priorities that his view of “winner or loser” is constricted. An oil conditioning standard must be framed in the broad context of public safety, not what might or might not inconvenience the industry. The “winners” must be homeowners, businesspeople and others who live near oil train rail lines. The means to achieve a meaningful oil safety standard could be flexible, but only if procedures can achieve the standard.

Transporting oil by rail can never be 100 percent safe. By its nature, oil on the rails entails risk. But if rail oil traffic is to be as safe as possible, anything that compromises that goal is unacceptable. North Dakota’s standard must be written with that in mind.

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