Office of Fossil Energy

Sandia National Laboratories Releases Literature Survey of Crude Oil Properties Relevant to Handling and Fire Safety in Transport

March 24, 2015

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The United States is in the midst of an energy renaissance, thanks in large part to the rapid increase in oil and gas production. In fact, the U.S is now the number one natural gas producer in the world and by 2016 U.S. oil production will exceed 9 million barrels a day -- a level not seen since 1970. This abundance provides tremendous promise for strengthening our energy security and our economy for decades to come.

Much of this new domestic oil and gas supply is being produced from unconventional resources -- particularly light sweet crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota, as well as the Eagle Ford and Permian Basins in Texas. This rapid growth has also created challenges in moving crude oil to market. Rail is increasingly relied upon to transport crude oil because production has exceeded the capacity of pipelines to move oil from these areas to refineries in the West, Midwest and Northeast. In the last five years, the movement of crude by rail has increased by 4000 percent. The great majority of this crude oil transport takes place without incident. However, the dramatic increase in the quantity of crude being shipped by rail and the significant distances traveled, along with several notable recent train derailments, have raised serious transportation safety concerns. The Administration has been working to make such transportation even safer, issuing two dozen emergency safety orders in the last year alone.

The Department of Energy is helping to develop an understanding of scientific questions associated with the production, treatment, and transportation of crude oils, including Bakken crude oil. To support this effort, the Department’s Sandia National Laboratories recently completed a report in cooperation with the Department of Transportation -- Literature Survey of Crude Oil Properties Relevant to Handling and Fire Safety in Transport.

The report represents the most comprehensive survey of existing, publicly held data and analysis on the chemical and physical properties of tight crude oils completed to date.  This survey helps to inform understanding of these characteristics, and in doing so provide context for ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of crude oil transport. Here’s what we found:

The report confirms that while crude composition matters, no single chemical or physical variable -- be it flash point, boiling point, ignition temperature, vapor pressure or the circumstances of an accident -- has been proven to act as the sole variable to define the probability or severity of a combustion event. All variables matter.

There is some statistical evidence to suggest that Bakken crude has a higher true vapor pressure than other crude oils, however, the report identified a wide range of ways in which Bakken crude oil samples have been measured. Available analysis of tight crude oil does not provide the necessary data or conclusion to enable meaningful comparison with other crude oil. The report recommends additional research to identify the best way to collect and compare oil samples, while developing correlations between a particular property or set of properties and the likelihood or severity of rail transport-related combustion events.

The report is an important step in developing a more complete, science-based understanding of outstanding questions associated with the production, treatment, and transportation of crude oils. We are also working on an experimental plan that should give us more information on the correlation between certain oil properties and transportation safety.

The Department of Energy looks forward to sharing its insights with others in the Administration as we coordinate the effort to enhance our energy security, support our domestic energy transformation, and strengthen our economy.