The Atlantic

The Great Crude Oil Fireball Test

Fracking has created a wider variety of crude oils, but is one more destructive than another? There’s only one way to find out.
Source: Dawn Faught / National Transportation Safety Board

If all goes well, a massive fireball of hydrocarbons will ignite in the New Mexico desert some time in the next year. It will be part of a multiyear Department of Energy research project to understand whether the chemical composition of unconventional crude oils changes the risk they pose to the nation’s highways, pipelines, and railroads.

If all doesn’t go well, a similar massive fireball could go up over a derailed train, as happened in the town of Lac-Mégantic in July of 2013, killing 42 people, or outside Casselton, North Dakota, in December of that year, where somehow there were no reported injuries.

These explosions, and several other high-profile derailments and spills, called attention to the danger of transporting crude oil in unprecedented amounts on the North American rail system. As more pipelines have come into play, the rail-transport boom out—approximately 150,000 barrels of oil travel the rails each day now, down from over 800,000 barrels at the peak in late 2014. Media attention has declined in lockstep, but there are still open questions about the chemical properties of these oils—many of which are produced from newly tapped shale formations around the country.

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