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Oil-By-Rail: A Battle Between “Right to Know” & “Need to Know”

11:35 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog 

BNSF Oil Train preparing to head north.

BNSF claims their oil train routes are secrets protected by law.

Since the first major oil-by-rail explosion occurred on July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, citizens in communities across the U.S. have risen up when they’ve learned their communities are destinations for volatile oil obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin.

As the old adage goes, ignorance is bliss. It’s also one of the keys to how massive oil-by-rail infrastructure was built in just a few short years — the public simply didn’t know about it.

Often, oil companies are only required to get state-level air quality permits to open a new oil-by-rail facility.

Terry Wechsler, an environmental attorney in Washington, recently explained to Reuters why there was no opposition to the first three oil-by-rail facilities in the area.

“There was no opposition to the other three proposals only because we weren’t aware they were in formal permitting,” he said

The same thing unfolded in Albany, N.Y., where there is an ongoing battle over expansion of the major oil-by-rail facility set to process tar sands crude sent by rail from Alberta. The initial permits for the oil rail transfer facility, which would allow two companies to bring in billions of gallons of oil a year, were approved with no public comment.

Oil and rail companies know well that they can proceed with their planned expansions more easily if communities remain unaware of their plans.

And now that some states — including North Dakota — have defied their efforts to keep the public in the dark about the crude-carrying trains, the public will have a much clearer idea of what’s going on.

A case in point, DeSmogBlog recently revealed crude-by-rail giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) moves up to 45 trains a week in some North Dakota counties and up to three dozen in others.

Big Rail’s Big Bluff

The rail industry has enjoyed a long history of legal protections, allowing it to operate in secrecy with regards to carrying hazardous materials. Indeed, Big Rail pushed hard to fight the release of information to the public on the transportation of Bakken crude oil.

This time around, the rail industry said that information it was compelled to give the federal government on its Bakken oil shipments under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) May 7 Emergency Order could not be released to the public under state-level open records laws.

Why? Because it fell under the category of “sensitive security information.”

In boilerplate letters and contract proposals sent to heads of State Emergency Response Commissions — one of which was obtained via Idaho’s Public Records Act by DeSmogBlog — BNSF deployed this argument.

This legal designation means BNSF and other companies could withhold information regarding the movements of Bakken crude from the public — by exempting it from state-level open records laws — and would only have to release it to the emergency response commissions.

“It is important to note that this information is subject to several restrictions on its release and exemptions from both state and federal applicable Freedom of Information laws and should only be provided to persons meeting with the appropriate need-to-knows discussed below,” BNSF wrote in its boilerplate letter.

BNSF considers this information commercial confidential and business confidential information and Security Sensitive Information pursuant to Federal law, and the documents have been marked accordingly.

But despite BNSF’s legal claims, some states have released this information in response to open records requests. And the federal government has also leaned toward advocating for greater transparency.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) confirmed by e-mail to the Sacramento Bee that the administration did not consider this information “security sensitive,” stating, “TSA has not made a finding as to whether or not information concerning the volume of crude oil train traffic or the routes used by these trains is considered security-sensitive information.

The Federal Railroad Administration also concluded information about Bakken crude was not considered sensitive security information.

Community’s Right to Know

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website contains a section on right to know laws. That section opens by stating, “Every American has the right to know the chemicals to which they may be exposed in their daily living.”

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NY Fracking Scandal: 7 Groups Demand Conflict of Interest Investigation of Cuomo Administration

1:15 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

Lawrence Schwartz, Secretary to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

New York could soon become the newest state in the union to allow hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the controversial technique used to enable shale oil and gas extraction. The green light from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo could transpire in as little as “a couple of weeks,” according to journalist and author Tom Wilber.  

That timeline, of course, assumes things don’t take any crazy twists or turns.

Enter a press conference today in Albany, where seven groups, including Public Citizen, Food and Water WatchFrack Action, United for ActionCatskill Citizens for Safe Energy, and Capital District Against Fracking, called for an Albany County District Attorney General investigation of the Cuomo Administration.

They are asking “whether Lawrence Schwartz, Secretary to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, has a conflict of interest between his stock investments and his involvement in the state’s decision on whether to allow high-volume hydraulic fracturing for shale gas.”

Schwartz – dubbed “the ringleader” of Governor Cuomo’s administration – potentially has what these groups describe as a legal conflict-of-interest. A months-long DeSmogBlog investigation reveals that Cuomo’s chief-of-staff actually has a direct financial interest in fracking going forward in New York state, potentially falling under the sphere of insider trading.  

Above and beyond Schwartz’s annual oil and gas industry stock holdings in corporations ranging from Occidental Petroleum, Williams Companies, ExxonMobil/XTO, and General Electric (GE) for the past decade, the Cuomo Administration has also held numerous meetings with lobbyists representing some of these same corporations dating back to when Cuomo assumed office in Jan. 2011, records obtained under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) by DeSmogBlog reveal.

Dirty Details: Oil/Gas Industry Stock Holdings, Meetings with Lobbyists from Same Corporations

The details are dirty, both figuratively and literally.

A September 2012 investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) examined Schwartz’s past three financial disclosure forms. That probe revealed that he had stock holdings of $1,000+ each in Occidental, Williams, Exxon/XTO, and GE in both 2010 and 2011, respectively. All four of these corporations possess a financial stake in Cuomo approving fracking in New York.

2009 saw much of the same, a year in which Schwartz had $1,000+ in his stock portfolio invested in GE, Williams, and Burlington Resources (purchasd as a subsidiary by ConocoPhillips in 2005).

DeSmogBlog followed in the footsteps of the EWG investigation by filing both an Executive Chamber FOIL request, as well a FOIL request to Schwartz’s former employer, the Westchester County Executive Office, asking for his financial disclosure forms dating back to 2002.

That latter request revealed that Schwartz has had stock holdings in the oil and gas industry dating back to 2002. At that time he was working as chief-of-staff to then-Westchester County Executive, Andrew J. Spano.

In 2002 and 2003, Schwartz had over $1,000 in stock holdings in Chevron and GE. Until 2001, Texaco – purchased in 2000 as a subsidiary by Chevron – was headquarted in Westchester. The Westchester County Executive Chamber did not possess Schwartz’s forms for 2004 or 2005.

His 2006 filings reveal $1,000 or more in his stock portfolio invested in Burlington Resources, GE, and Williams Companies.

Records obtained from Cuomo’s Executive Chamber also revealed that lobbyists from the very corporations Schwartz has thousands of dollars of stock holdings in have earned the ear of Cuomo in the form of exclusive meetings with his high-level aides.  

One case in point: Both in April 2012 and in Sept. 2012, Williams Companies lobbyists had meetings with Cuomo aides on the status of its proposed Constitution Pipeline, a joint venture between Cabot Oil and Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas and Williams Companies. That 120-mile long, 30-inch prospective pipeline, if approved, will carry gas produced in NY’s section of the Marcellus Shale to markets throughout the northeastern U.S.

The latter meeting was held between two Williams’ lobbyists – Tonio Burgos and John Charlson – and upper level Cuomo aides.

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New Gas Industry Astroturf: Landowner Advocates of NY Buses Activists to Albany Pro-Fracking Rally

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

A pro-fracking rally held on Oct. 15 in Albany, NY was described by about a dozen local media outlets as a gathering of roughly 1,000 grassroots activists from all walks of life.

All came out to add their voice to the conversation regarding the extraction of unconventional gas from the Marcellus Shale basin in New York state. But the marchers weren’t concerned landowners worried about losing their water supplies or property values. Their demand: to lift the current moratorium on fracking, which was prolonged by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sept. 30.

One rally attendee, Doug Lee, described the ongoing fracking moratorium as a “communist act” to the Albany Times-Union. Another described anti-fracking activists as “well-funded and organized activists masquerading as environmentalists, who often do not need to make a living in our communities.” Republican Sen. Tom Libous, observed that Hollywood stars Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger weren’t on the scene, telling them to ”Stay in Hollywood. We don’t want you here.”

Unmentioned by any of the news outlets that covered the event was a crucial fact: these weren’t actual “grassroots” activists, but rather astroturf out-of-towners bused in from counties all across the state. Their journey was paid for by the legitimately “well-funded” oil and gas industry, which raked in profits of $1 trillion in the past decade.

According to the Associated Press, the pro-fracking rally and march were organized by a brand new front group called the Landowner Advocates of New York formed in the immediate aftermath of the recent Cuomo decision to stall on opening the fracking floodgates.

The well-known industry front group, Energy in Depth (EID), announced the launch of the Landowner Advocates of New York in an Oct. 3 blog post, mere days after the Cuomo announcement. Lee (the same man who accused Cuomo of partaking in a “communist act” by extending the fracking moratorium) wrote about the rationale behind the group’s genesis – which he is the head of and which he registered the website for – in the EID post announcing the Landowner Advocates’ launch:

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