'Micro refineries' a solution to oil-train woes, energy firm says

WASHINGTON, June 30 Mon Jun 30, 2014 9:25pm IST

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WASHINGTON, June 30 (Reuters) - A handful of small refineries in North Dakota could remove dangerous gas from oil train cargoes and make shipments from the state's productive Bakken shale area safer on the tracks, according to a company which has pitched the idea to regulators.

The proposal from Quantum Energy Inc would strip propane and other volatile gas from North Dakota crude and send much of the remaining fuel to distant refineries.

Williston, North Dakota-based Quantum hopes to build five "micro refineries" near railheads already handling Bakken crude to strip about 100,000 barrels a day of fuel from that stream.

Some of the resultant gas could add to household fuel supplies in the upper Midwest while making Bakken-origin rail cargoes safer, Quantum's executive vice president Russell Smith told Reuters.

"Our plan solves a couple of important problems," said Smith, who earlier this month pitched the idea in meetings with White House officials and Transportation Department regulators mulling oil train safety.

Besides light fuels, Smith said, the Quantum facilities would also pull a stream of diesel gasoline from Bakken sources to help slake demand in the region. Executives hope to have permits and financing to break ground on at least one of the proposed refineries before year-end.

The company expects that each processing center would cost about $500 million.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said officials could not comment on their deliberations about oil train safety or meetings with industry.

In the coming weeks, though, officials are expected to outline measures to improve oil train safety such as demanding tougher tank cars, slower speeds and diversions around urban centers.

Several oil cargoes from North Dakota's Bakken have exploded during rail accidents in the last year. Some officials say toughened tank cars should be used to move such fuel.

Regulators have homed in on the vapor pressure of Bakken fuel, one index of the explosion risk.

Industry-funded tests of Bakken fuel have returned vapor pressure readings of 15 pounds per square inch on the commonly-used Reid scale, while Quantum Energy believes it could bring that reading below 6 psi, similar to fuels like ethanol and heavy crude.

"The crude is much less volatile once you take these light tops off," said Smith, referring to the gassy share of Bakken fuel.

Some oil industry officials, though, see little need to reduce vapor pressure in oil train cargoes and think Quantum might have misjudged demand for gas.

"There will be a market for propane, potentially in North Dakota, but what about the other components they'll be removing?" said Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Pentane, butane and other light gases are not easily marketable in North Dakota currently and may have to be shipped to buyers such as far-off chemical plants in tank cars fit to carry dangerous gas.

Smith said Quantum expects to find buyers that would welcome the portion of Bakken fuel not marketed close to the source. The Bakken field extends into Montana and Canada's Saskatchewan and Manitoba provinces. (Reporting by Patrick Rucker; Editing by Alden Bentley)

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