By The New York Times EDITORIAL BOARD FEB. 20, 2015
By some miracle, considering how close it was to the city of Charleston, the huge fireball from an enormous explosion of oil tank cars in West Virginia this week did not cost lives. But this latest explosion has served as a terrifying reminder that the industry’s ability to safely ship oil from North Dakota’s booming oil fields lags well behind its capacity to get that oil out of the ground.
There are two important ways to make transporting oil much safer than it is now. One is to impose tough new standards on tank cars, improving valves and brakes and generally making them more resilient. A final rule from the Department of Transportation aimed at doing that is awaiting approval at the Office of Management and Budget, which needs to move quickly.
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The second is to make the crude oil itself less volatile before it is pumped into the tank cars. Producers call it “stabilizing” the oil, a process that involves separating light gases, which in turn reduces vapor pressures and makes the oil safer to transport. Officials in North Dakota say they will take steps to make the oil less volatile starting April 1.
Tank cars filled with the volatile Bakken crude from North Dakota have exploded with disturbing regularity in the past few years as more of the oil is moved across the country. Crude oil tank cars exploded last year near Lynchburg, Va. Forty-seven people were killed in 2013 after cars derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
Bakken crude production has increased 400 percent since 2009, and the huge, cylindrical, matte black tank cars rumble out of North Dakota’s oil fields each week by the thousands. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who has been pushing Washington for tougher standards, noted this week that trains move through cities across the Northeast, including Buffalo, Rochester and Albany, and warned that “all you need is for one of these to explode in a populated area.”
The West Virginia explosion should be a reminder that the Obama administration, the railroad industry and the oil producers all need to find answers, as quickly as possible, to an increasingly serious problem.