North Dakota Republican calls for oil boom slowdown after train crash

FARGO, North Dakota Fri Jan 3, 2014 6:14pm EST

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FARGO, North Dakota Jan 3 (Reuters) - A prominent North Dakota Republican has called for a slowdown in the state's oil production boom following the derailment and explosion of a train carrying crude oil on Monday.

Robert Harms, chairman of North Dakota's Republican party and an energy industry consultant, told Reuters on Thursday that a "moderated approach" was needed amid an energy boom that has transformed the local economy, but created safety concerns.

His comments are among the strongest yet in a state that has so far enthusiastically embraced its energy surge.

This week, a 106-car BNSF train carrying crude east from the Bakken crashed into a derailed westbound BNSF grain train near the town of Casselton, setting off explosions and a fire that burned for more than 24 hours. No one was injured.

"I think it's a good wake up call for all of us, both local and state officials, as well as the people with the oil and gas industry and the transportation industry," Harms said in his first interview after the accident.

"Even people within the oil and gas industry that I've talked to feel that sometimes we're just going too fast and too hard," said Harms, who has also supported regulation that would require producers to cut back on flaring natural gas.

Thousands of oil wells dot the North Dakota prairie landscape, and mile-long trains crisscross the state daily, taking oil from the giant Bakken shale to refineries on the east and west coasts. But rapid development in the state's sparsely populated west has strained local resources from rural roads to regional housing to county jails.

It is unclear what, if anything, the North Dakota government could do to stem the drilling boom, or even to curb the risks of volatile oil-by-rail shipments. But any indication of growing local alarm could add to pressure for federal action, or for the energy industry to impose more safeguards.

This week's wreck was the fourth of its kind in North America in the past year, raising questions about an oil boom that has outpaced pipeline construction and forced producers to rely on trains instead.

North Dakota produced nearly 950,000 barrels of oil a day in October. Of that some 700,000 bpd was shipped by rail, most of it the light, sweet Bakken variety that experts say is particularly flammable.

While some Casselton residents appeared unfazed by Monday's crash that sent flames and smoke high into the sky just one mile from town, politicians have voiced concern.

Some have called for new safety features for crude train cars to avoid puncture and explosions. North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple met with BNSF chairman Matt Rose on Friday to discuss Monday's crash and talk about enhanced rail safety, including the type of cars used.

Others say more oil pipelines are needed to reduce train traffic.

"I think it's just one more aspect to drive the need for additional pipelines to move the oil out of western North Dakota," said Republican state representative Wesley Belter.

He is in favor of building the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would provide a route for Canadian crude south through the United States. Belter represents District 22, which includes Casselton.

Casselton native Senator George Sinner (D), from District 46, was leaving Gordy's Travel Plaza on the southern edge of the small town when the accident occurred.

"It's pretty scary, especially considering that it was within a few hundred feet of the community I grew up in," Sinner said. "I'd like to see some more discussion about the ramifications." (Reporting By Alicia Underlee Nelson. Writing by Edward McAllister. Editing by Andre Grenon.)

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