The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday night that it would investigate the derailment and explosion of a train carrying crude oil in North Dakota, the heart of the country's energy renaissance.
On Monday afternoon, part of a 106-car BNSF Railway train derailed near Casselton, N.D. Local TV news footage showed a massive column of black smoke pouring from the derailment site, and balls of flame shooting hundreds of feet in the air.
The North Dakota derailment marked the third time in six months that a train carrying crude oil had caught fire. A July derailment and explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people. A similar train derailed and exploded in November in Alabama, although no one was injured or killed.
Canadian safety investigators launched a sweeping review of crude by rail following the Quebec disaster. The NTSB declined to investigate Alabama derailment, leaving it to the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Administration.
The NTSB will be the lead investigator in North Dakota, according to Kevin Thompson, an FRA spokesman. FRA and PHMSA will send their own teams, he said, "to determine the facts and learn how we can minimize risk to prevent a similar incident in the future."
All three trains were carrying light, sweet crude from North Dakota's Bakken region. Hydraulic fracturing has unlocked the state's vast petroleum reserves, catapulting North Dakota to the nation's No. 2 oil producer behind Texas. Alaska now ranks third.
North Dakota is on pace to produce 1 million barrels of oil a day, and about 70 percent of it moves by rail. While most of the attention and controversy around North American oil production has focused on the Keystone XL pipeline and heavier tar sands oil from western Canada, the amount of Bakken crude oil transported by rail now matches or exceeds the volume of the proposed pipeline.
Casselton, about 25 miles west of Fargo, is the hometown of Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple. Local police told the Associated Press that at least 300 of the town's 2,400 residents had been evacuated.