Ontario oil-train wrecks ignite worry over Canada crude flammability

Thu Mar 19, 2015 7:56pm EDT
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By Nia Williams

CALGARY, Alberta, March 19 (Reuters) - Two recent oil-train derailments in Canada have opened a new front on the debate over safety, highlighting how even shipments of Alberta's oil sands crude can contain components just as volatile as North Dakota's Bakken.

Although Canada is best known for producing viscous bitumen that is not prone to ignite on its own, it is often blended with as much as one-third super-light oil - known as condensate - before it is shipped in rail cars, injecting the same kind of volatile gases that can explode in derailments, industry experts say.

In the case of two fiery incidents in northern Ontario in recent weeks, the oil involved was synthetic crude from the Alberta oil sands, which is upgraded from raw bitumen, making it less stable.

Both Canadian National Railway trains were heading to a Valero Energy Corp's refinery in Quebec before they came off the tracks and burst into flames.

Ever since the Lac-Megantic disaster in Quebec, where a runaway train carrying Bakken crude erupted in a fireball in 2013, killing 47 people, worries about safety have been largely centred around light crude. In particular, Bakken has been the focus since its so-called "light ends," volatile gases with higher vapor pressure and low flashpoints, occur naturally.

But light ends are also present in the condensate used to dilute raw bitumen and some heavy crude. Even though the concentration in diluted bitumen, known as dilbit, is far less than in Bakken, the low flashpoint remains.

"Basically all the materials we are talking about - Bakken, West Texas Intermediate, some of the diluted bitumen blends coming out of Alberta - all have light boiling components that are flammable," said Dennis Sutton, executive director of the Crude Oil Quality Association.

(See related graphic on oil by rail incidents: here)   Continued...