Streetwise Professor

February 24, 2014

Not to be Crude About It: From Bakken to Tarakan

Filed under: Economics,Energy,History,Military — The Professor @ 9:19 pm

Russell Gold has an  interesting piece about Bakken crude, specifically, its highly volatile nature.  This volatility makes it particularly dangerous to transport, especially by rail: due to its volatility, it is prone to explode in the event of a derailment or collision.

Further illustration, as if any were needed, that oil is not all alike.  Crude is a mixture of various hydrocarbons (and impurities), and different crudes are different mixtures.  Some are very light-almost like gasoline.  Some are very heavy-almost like asphalt. Different crudes present different challenges to refine-and different dangers to produce, transport, store, and refine.

My prediction is that this will result in some technical innovation that will make crude more amenable to transportation.  Maybe some sort of processing at the rail terminals.

This also brings to mind (mine, anyways) a historical episode.  In mid-1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy was tethered to bases in Indonesia, due to the ravaging of its tanker fleet by American submarines: fuel was available in Indonesia.

And a very special kind of fuel.  Crude produced on Tarakan Island was sufficiently light that it could be burned in ship boilers without refining.  One problem was that the crude was also sour (i.e., had a high sulphur content) and this corroded boiler tubes.

But the bigger problem was that it was very volatile, due to the large quantity of naphtha in the Tarakan crude.  This proved to be deadly to the IJN carriers Taiho and Shokaku (a veteran of Pearl Harbor) during the decisive Battle of the Philippine Sea (waged during the US invasion of Saipan).  When these ships were torpedoed by American submarines, the highly volatile fuel (and the vapors from aviation fuel leaking from ruptured tanks) eventually ignited, turning the ships into huge infernos.  The fuel eventually exploded, obliterating the huge carriers with massive losses of life. (Poor damage control on Taiho contributed to its destruction.)

Oil is not to be trifled with.  Which makes it all the more amazing how much is transported, stored, and consumed without incident.  Yes, Bakken presents challenges, but I am sure that economic imperatives (liability, the desire to avoid seeing valuable oil go up in flames, and yes, regulation) will result in adequate precautions and technical innovations that will substantially reduce the risks.  Desperation made the Japanese carriers fatal run risks with the oil they burned: we are not so desperate.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. I think that without pipelines, the dice will always eventually come up “Lac Megantic”. I’m not a transportation engineer, but underground pipelines, barring someone’s malicious intent, should never result in such a tragedy, especially in the middle of a community.
    As an Albertan, I can assure my American cousins that our oil will be produced regardless, and will be (is being)transported to market regardless of whether there is a pipeline or not.
    Surely building the Keystone XL pipeline is a no-brainer.

    Comment by Gordon — February 24, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

  2. @Gordon. Yes. Definitely a no brainer. But that is still an insuperable obstacle to the chief magistrate of my republic. Unbrainer? Negative brainer? My vocabulary is inadequate.

    But don’t worry! He says he’ll get around to making a decision “in a couple of months.” Uh-huh. Sure he will.

    I almost took a job at U Alberta in 1996. Very nice position. Full professor. At the time Canada was down, and the US riding pretty high. That plus the taxes plus the 17 hour nights in Edmonton in January convinced me to stay stateside. The worm has definitely turned in the years since.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 24, 2014 @ 10:28 pm

  3. The sun is starting to come back to us, Ukrainians have invigorated my hope in humanity, and I live near the Rutherford library (U of A), one of the best libraries I have ever seen.

    Things are looking up.

    Comment by Gordon — February 25, 2014 @ 9:04 am

  4. You have to laugh at the Taiho saga though, do you not?

    After the debacle of Midway, where four carriers – 47% of their aircraft carrier tonnage – were destroyed by nine bombs on target, the IJN concluded that the chief danger to their tinderbox carriers was the dive bomber.

    They duly came up with a design for Taiho that featured a fully enclosed hangar. It had a hurricane bow to improve seakeeping and there was only one hangar deck, meaning an air group of only about 45 aircraft. The payoff was that the lower metacentric height meant the flight deck could be armoured.

    The bomb-proof aircraft carrier entered service in 1944…and was torpedoed.

    Most IJN carriers were named after flying beasts. Taiho means “Great Phoenix” – one wonders whether “Giant Turkey” would not have been a better choice.

    Comment by Green as Grass — February 25, 2014 @ 9:38 am

  5. @Green. Yes, it is funny, in a bad karma sort of way. Also, the design included an enclosed hangar, which filled up with fumes, which DC was incapable of getting rid of, apparently never anticipating this problem. So they turned on the ventilation system full blast, and distributed the fumes throughout the ship. Just waiting for a spark . . . which duly appeared, at which time the Giant Turkey disappeared.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 25, 2014 @ 11:44 am

  6. Prof, I have been reading about the Naomi Buchwald verdict upholding the banks motion to dismiss antitrust charges in the Libor scandal. Just don’t get her logic. She grants that banks colluded but somehow decides that it didnot result in anti-competitive behavior… What is your take? Surprisingly I did not find any posts from you on this in the archives!! – See more at:

    Comment by Surya — February 25, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

  7. @Surya. I have to be careful what I say here. I will review her opinion and respond. I appreciate your wanting to know my take.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 25, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

  8. Some crude isn’t actually crude, it’s condensate, which vapourises far more easily. If condensate is exposed to air a portion of it will “flash”, i.e. turn to gas, which is far more explosive than ordinary crude. We’ve known how to transport hydrocarbons for years: pipelines. They just need to be designed and maintained properly.

    Comment by Tim Newman — February 26, 2014 @ 4:59 am

  9. Prof, thanks. Definitely would love to hear your take on it. I am at a stage where I am beginning to understand these issues and often I try to form my own opinions and see how it matches up with someone who knows better. I know that these cases are thorny and intricate, but this verdict I believe has massive implications and has much impact on the fate of libor litigations.

    Comment by Surya — February 26, 2014 @ 10:24 am

  10. This stuff is not rocket science. Flammability is easily described by two numbers RVP (Reid Vapor Pressure) and Flash Point. Almost all crude oils flunk both, and are just below gasoline in flammability and way above jet fuel.

    Crude should be transported in gasoline-type tanks. Otherwise can only be described as “political”, not scientific. But frankly, stouter tankcars will only help marginally. They will better survive slow-speed derailments. But with high speed or rigid obstacles, any car can rupture.

    On the Japanese War, US subs kept the Japanese war machine desparately short of fuel of all kinds. US ships were also burning hi-S fuels and seeing tube corrosion when soot-blowing was skipped. Some crudes need minimal refining and a field stabilizer (if used) would have given safe fuel oil. But nothing helps if gasoline gets loose.

    Comment by Robert in Houston — February 26, 2014 @ 10:45 am

  11. […] Original Post […]

    Pingback by Not to be Crude About It: From Bakken to Tarakan | — February 28, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress