The second installment in my series of reports for Next Generation about California oil issues is now online. Part 1 is here. Both explore and analyze the oilfield process of acidizing, which has potentially serios risks for public health and safety that are not well known. In the blog post below, I explore a few follow-up thoughts about potential lessons for California from the July 6 railway explosion and inferno in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
First, a bit of necessary background: The issue of acidizing is complicated by the fact that oilfields around the United States use several techniques of acidizing with various acids. In other states, hydrochloric acid, known as HCI, is often used after the end of the process of fracking to eke out the last dregs of crude from a depleted oil well. In California, however, traditional fracking won't work in many areas of the Monterey Shale that have been shattered and buckled by tectonic activity. In those areas, oil companies reportedly prefer hydrofluoric acid (also known as hydrogen fluoride, or HF), and they are reportedly using it in large volumes and concentrations, often under high pressure, as a primary extraction method.
This distinction is relevant for California because on an increasing basis, HF is being trucked all around the state's oilfields, mixed on site and injected into oil wells. From beginning to end, these processes are largely unregulated.
A frightening example of this sort of risk is the July 6 explosion in Quebec of an oil tanker train, which killed 47 people. An Aug. 13 Bloomberg report found that investigators are now suspecting that the blast resulted from the use of hydrochloric acid, or HCI, in North Dakota oilfields, where the crude on the rail cars had originated.
Canadian regulators are testing the composition of crude from the wrecked Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. freight train. A question they say they’re asking is why the derailment led to such an intense inferno, which regulators have called “abnormal.” They visited North Dakota as part of their review, said Chris Krepski, a spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
(...) Much of North Dakota’s production relies on hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a technique in which millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to shatter rock and free trapped oil. Highly corrosive hydrochloric acid is widely used to extract oil in the state, according to a 2011 report from the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
In a July 29 letter to the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based lobbying and standards-setting group for the oil and gas industry, the railway administration said it found increasing cases of damage to tanker cars’ interior surfaces. A possible cause is contamination of crude by materials used in fracking, according to the letter.
“If the hydrochloric acid is carried with the oil into rail cars, corrosion can be an issue,” Andy Lipow, president of Houston-based Lipow Oil Associates LLC, said in an e-mail.
Shippers need to know the properties of the oil to ensure that it’s transported in tankers equipped to handle the cargo, according to the rail agency’s letter. Because information provided to railroads on the properties of oil is not gathered from tests, the agency said it “can only speculate” as to the number of cars in violation of hazardous-materials regulations.
Investigating whether the chemical composition of Bakken oil makes it more likely to corrode tank cars is reasonable, said Peter Goelz, a former National Transportation Safety Board managing director who’s now a senior vice president with O’Neill and Associates in Washington.
Try a quick spin with Google, and you'll find that while fracking has become almost synonymous with North Dakota, very little attention has been given to the practice of acidizing in that state's oil boom. With the exception of a few roadside accidents, covered in the local press, acidizing in North Dakota has gone almost unnoticed.
As an industrial chemical, HF is reportedly much more dangerous than HCI. So can we say with confidence that HF use in California could potentially lead to a Quebec-style disaster? Certainly not. No such extrapolation can be drawn definitively. But given the almost complete lack of regulation of acidizing in California oilfields -- not to mention the lack of scientific research about HF's implications for transportation risk, worker safety and public safety -- would some increased attention be deserved? That question seems easy to answer.