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Safety alert issued over dangers of fracked oil

The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued an unprecedented safety alert on the transport of hydraulically fractured oil from North Dakota's booming Bakken oil fields that could also cool Canada's unconventional oil rush.

"Recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil," says the alert from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

The frantic movement of fracked Bakken oil on Canada's poorly regulated rail system resulted in a catastrophic explosion that incinerated 47 citizens in Lac Megantic, Quebec, last summer.

Major derailments of Bakken crude have terrified rural communities in North Dakota and Alabama. "It is imperative that offerors (shippers) properly classify and describe hazardous materials being offered for transportation," adds the alert.

Due to the unusual properties of fracked oil, PHMSA has undertaken a series of tests (Operation Classification) to determine "the gas content, corrosivity, toxicity, flammability and certain other characteristics of the Bakken crude oil, which should more clearly inform the proper characterization of the material."

Hydraulic fracturing releases oil from deep and shallow rock formations by creating webs of non-linear cracks that resemble a shattered windshield.

The controversial and poorly studied technology then pumps high volumes of water (two to 10 million gallons per frack), toxic chemicals and various sizes of sand or ceramic particles called proppants used to "prop" the fractures open.

Scientists have linked the technology, which industry describes as "proven" and "safe", to methane leaks, earthquakes, and groundwater contamination.  

Bakken crude's explosive flammability may, in part, be related to the large number of volatile chemicals or frack fluids such as diesel and kerosene used to release the oil from deep shale formations.  

Bakken crude can also have a high hydrogen sulfide content. It's a potent neurotoxin as deadly as cyanide that has killed scores of oil and gas workers.

It can contain such perilous amounts of hydrogen sulfide that Enbridge recently applied to restrict shipments of Bakken crude on its pipelines due to concerns about worker safety.   

The safety alert, which resulted in an immediate plunge in the value of shares of Bakken oil producers, could have serious ramifications for Alberta and Saskatchewan where the industry is also fracking shale formations for light oil.

Horizontal multi-stage fracking has boosted Alberta's oil production to 1.2 million barrels a year and accounted for much of Saskatchewan's 470,000 barrel a day production in 2012.

Much of that oil, similar in character to the Bakken crude, is transported by rail to the United States.

According to Statistics Canada data, industry loaded 12,989 rail cars with 1.1 million tonnes of fracked oil or heavy bitumen in February 2013 -- a 60 per cent growth from February 2012.

Critics say that the regulation of hazardous goods by rail hasn't kept up with the fracking boom, just as the regulation of diluted bitumen by pipelines hasn't kept pace with Canada's frantic oil development.

Last November, Canada's auditor general lambasted Transport Canada for lax oversight of rail safety.

In particular, it found that "the Department's level of oversight was not sufficient to obtain assurance that federal railways have implemented adequate and effective safety management systems."

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes about energy for The Tyee and others.

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