The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency charged with regulating the transportation of hazardous materials, announced this week that it will release new rules for tank cars that transport crude oil.  Railroad shipping of crude oil produced from the Bakken shale region in North Dakota became a hot topic over the past year following three train crashes in which Bakken crude oil caught fire after impact.

Although the head of the PHMSA announced that the agency had completed a draft rule-making, she declined to share the details of the new rules, which are currently under review by the Office of Management and Budget.

This announcement comes on the heels of an Emergency Order issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that creates additional disclosure procedures for railroads shipping Bakken crude oil. The order requires railroads operating trains that are carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil (roughly 35 cars’ worth) to notify the State Emergency Response Commission of each state through which the train will pass.  Along with the emergency order, the DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the PHMSA issued a joint safety advisory urging railroads shipping Bakken crude to avoid using older tank cars such as DOT Specification-111 or CTC-111 tank cars. This alert follows a January safety alert in which the PHMSA warned that “the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.” The alert emphasized that Bakken crude is light, sweet crude oil (“light” refers to its low density, while the classification “sweet” originated in the oil’s low sulphur content), which has a lower flash point–and thus can ignite at lower temperatures–than traditional heavy crude oil.

Meanwhile, the North Dakota Petroleum Council published preliminary findings this week from an independent quality assurance study of crude oil from 15 well-sites and seven rail-loading facilities in the Bakken region.  The results confirmed that Bakken crude oil’s properties are consistent with light, sweet crude oils, and thus Bakken crude does not pose a greater danger during transport than similar crudes.  In contrast to the FRA and PHMSA’s joint safety advisory, the authors state that Bakken crude “may be hauled safely using existing DOT-111 tank cars under current federal specifications.” However, the preliminary findings do not address the PHMSA’s warning that Bakken crude–like other light, sweet crudes–has a lower flash point and thus can ignite at lower temperatures than traditional heavy crude oil.  The final results from the study are slated for publication in June.