Lydia Gilbertson | Shale Plays Media Google+
Bakken crude’s volatility in comparison to other types of crude has been an ongoing debate since a train derailment outside of Casselton, ND caused a giant explosion and evacuation of the area. Today a Congressional Committee attempted to address this issue and end this disagreement. There were five witnesses at the hearing: Timothy P. Butters, the deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration; Christopher Smith, the deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy at the Department of Energy; Kari Cutting, the Vice President of the North Dakota Petroleum Council; John Auers, the executive Vice President of Turner, Mason, & Company, and Mark Zoanetti, deputy chief of special operations for the Syracuse Fire Department. Oddly, the administration gathered mostly witnesses that were not scientists, even though they are experts in the field of transportation and safety. The session began mostly with members of Congress complaining about the witnesses not being scientists. Representative Paul Broun stated after the witnesses’ opening statement “We can see, now why we invited technical people in the field, rather than people from the political field.” As the session progressed, questions ranged from pipeline safety to flaring. At the end of the first session, the question of Bakken volatility was still up for debate, along with the scientific credibility of the witnesses.
One of the most important questions came from representative Kevin Cramer (ND) who asked FEMSA study supporters what the difference is between their study and the NDPC study on Bakken crude characteristics. Christopher Smith of the U.S Department of Energy responded, “I think it highlights that there are some uncertainties there, this is an area of new study and the complex question of volatility in the real world. The differences in the studies’ findings highlight that there are things we know but there are practical measures we haven’t addressed yet.”
The session addressed the multitude of issues that center around Bakken crude and oil transportation. Smith stated several times that further study would hopefully develop an actual answer to the question of how hazardous crude oil from North Dakota can be. There is no black and white answer as to whether or not Bakken crude is different from any other light, sweet crude because every type of crude is different. The real issue, as Rep. Dan Maffei (NY) stated, is the volume of it that is being transported. “This Bakken crude may not be more dangerous than other modern chemicals. It is just a much broader volume than it has been in the past.”
John Auers, who helped conduct the characteristics study commissioned by the NDPC, believes that Bakken crude is not more dangerous than other hazardous substances. He stated, “If I threw a match into Bakken crude oil it would not ignite it. If I threw one into a container of gasoline or ethanol it would.” His comparison of the two studies found that they produced very similar results, however, he felt the conclusions that the FEMSA study reached were not supported by the data they collected. When asked about which mode of transportation he felt was the safest based on his studies he replied “I believe, that it all depends. All of those forms of transportation can be safe, including marine. You can transport crude oil products [any way] if it is done correctly.”