Why Bakken Oil Is Dirty

Bakken Pipeline Proposed RoutePeople who care about hydraulic fracturing say the oil coming from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan is dirty. It is. All oil is dirty, and my two cents is we should leave what’s there in the ground. That won’t go over well in North Dakota where discovery of the Parshall Oil Field in 2006 created an oil boom.

What makes Bakken crude oil problematic is that it contains more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than oil shipped from wells in other regions of the country. This makes the oil more flammable, so when there is a train derailment, as there was in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013, the oil easily ignites and creates hell on Earth. (Read Adam Federman’s article in Earth Island Journal here).

Because so little public study has been conducted on Bakken crude oil and the operations that produce it, scientists don’t fully understand why the oil is so flammable. There are suspected causes.

The Bakken formation shale oil boom developed from almost nothing to more than a million barrels of crude oil daily in a short period of time. According to Federman, the infrastructure doesn’t exist in the Bakken to fraction off the VOCs as is done with other oil production facilities. The oil is shipped with the VOCs in it, making Bakken crude oil more flammable. There’s more Bakken crude oil today, it poses a real threat to public safety, and the transportation modes used are not regulated well enough for the commodity’s characteristics.

One of the frequent concerns in the Bakken is there are not enough suitable rail cars available to meet shipping needs. Lack of transportation capacity to get the oil to market is an issue. This created a business opportunity, and that’s what the Dakota Access pipeline is about.

Debate over trucks vs. rail vs. pipeline to transport Bakken crude oil is wasted time. Each mode of transportation has its own issues, and most transportation experts agree pipeline is the safest of the modes of transportation. Regardless of transportation mode, if there is a spill, first responders will be required to deal with a commodity on which they have in most cases received inadequate training. That problem could conceivably be fixed, but awareness of the issue hasn’t adequately emerged as we wait for the Iowa Utilities Board’s public healing on the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Combine the increased flammability of Bakken crude oil with lack of proper shipping regulations and capacity, and we know why it is called dirty oil.

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