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Dairyland to Petrostate: Wisconsin Oil-By-Rail Routes Published for First Time

1:51 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog 

A BNSF train engine heading north

BNSF and other rail companies are carrying dangerous oil tankers through Wisconsin.

DeSmogBlog is publishing the first documents ever obtained from the Wisconsin government revealing routes for oil-by-rail trains in the state carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale basin.

The information was initially submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) under the auspices of a May 7 Emergency Order, which both the federal government and the rail industry initially argued should only be released to those with a “need to know” and not the public at-large.

The Wisconsin documents show the three companies that send Bakken crude trains through the state — Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific — all initially argued routes are “sensitive security information” only to be seen by those with a “need to know.”

As covered in a previous DeSmogBlog article revealing the routes of oil trains traveling through North Dakota for the first time, the rail industry used this same line of legal argument there and beyond.

Wisconsin Emergency Management did not buy the argument, though, and released the documents to DeSmogBlog through the state’s Public Records Act.

BNSF Hugs the Mississippi

As with North Dakota, BNSF is the chief mover of oil-by-rail in Wisconsin.

BNSF is owned by Warren Buffett, one of the richest men on the planet and a major campaign contributor to President Barack Obama and expected major donor for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid.

According to the records it submitted to Wisconsin Emergency Management, BNSF moves the majority of its crude-by-rail trains along the state’s western corridor, which hugs the Mississippi River.

For the week of June 5 through June 11, records show BNSF sent 39 oil-by-rail trains through Buffalo County, La Crosse County, Pepin County, Pierce County and Trempealeau County. All of these counties border the Mississippi.

As covered here on DeSmogBlog in January, the BNSF-owned Bakken oil train that exploded in Casselton, North Dakota on December 30, 2013 was headed to a Mississippi River terminal in Missouri owned by Marquis Energy.

Canadian Pacific Hugs Lake Michigan

While BNSF dominates Wisconsin’s Mississippi River corridor, Canadian Pacific does the same — albeit to a much lesser extent — along another major body of water: Lake Michigan.

According to the data submitted by the company, Canadian Pacific ships three to five train-loads of Bakken oil per week through Milwaukee County, Racine County and Kenosha County. Canadian Pacific slices through the heart of the state in a west-to-east transit route to reach Milwaukee County.

Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha all border Lake Michigan. And once it crosses into northeastern Illinois, the rail line sits in close proximity to Lake Michgan, particularly in Waukegan (a train line traversed many times by this writer, a Kenosha native).

Canadian Pacific owns a major rail transload facility — Great Lakes Reloading — located on the southeast side of Chicago. It sits close to both Lake Michigan and the Calumet River.

Great Lakes Reloading serves as a key thoroughfare for many of the company’s freight rail transportation routes, including for crude-by-rail.

Union Pacific: Didn’t Meet Threshold

Industry giant Union Pacific did not meet the oil-by-rail carriage threshold that requires companies to submit routes to State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs), one of which is Wisconsin Emergency Management.

That threshold, as explained by Union Pacific in its letter to Wisconsin Emergency Management, is one million gallons of Bakken crude per week.

Union Pacific is perhaps best known to many in southeast Wisconsin and northeast Illinois for its Metra public transit line running from Kenosha to Chicago (and vice versa) and from Chicago to many Chicago-area suburbs (and vice versa).

From America’s Dairyland to Petrostate?

Read the rest of this entry →

Citing DeSmogBlog Series, “FrackNation” Screening Cancelled by MN Film Festival

4:39 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

FrackNation,” the documentary film about hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) with close conservative movement ties, recently had its showing cancelled at Winona, Minnesota’s annual Frozen River Film Festival (FRFF).

Citing DeSmogBlog‘s two-part investigative series published in May 2013 on “FrackNation,” FRFF Director Mike Kennedy told the Winona Post his rationale for cancelling the film is that it was, “pretty apparent they were paid to make these movies to counter Gasland [Part II].”

“DeSmogBlog.com appears to be the main source of allegations that ‘FrackNation’ was industry-funded,” wrote the Post. “DeSmogBlog claims connections between [film Co-Director Phelim] McAleer and conservative groups, industry groups help[ing] promote the film after its was made, and the fact that McAleer directed an industry-funded documentary in the past, as proof that ‘FrackNation’ is cut from the same cloth.”

The cancellation has caused a major kerfuffle in conservative media circles, covered by outlets ranging from Fox News, Fox BusinessThe Blaze TVTown Hall, Watchdog.orgHot Air and others.

FrackNation issued a press statement in response to the cancellation, spawning the conservative media backlash. 

“The film festival organizers seem to hate alternative points of view, they seem to want to quash diversity. They seem to be scared of the truth,” McAleer said in the press statement. “Basically the Frozen River Film Festival organizers have given in to bullying and taken the easy way out and censored a film that might offend environmental elites who think they know best.”

But an email exchange** provided by film festival organizers to DeSmogBlog shows, far from a case of censorship, “FrackNation” did not agree to the standard operating procedure for screening the film. In turn, festival organizers decided they wouldn’t screen it.

“FrackNation” Rises to Prominence

Co-Directed by Magdalena Segieda, Ann McElhinney and McAleer, “FrackNation” came out a few months before the release of Josh Fox’s “Gasland: Part II” and around the same time as Gus Van Sant’s Hollywood film critical of fracking, “Promised Land,” starring Matt Damon.

Since its release, “FrackNation” has done many screenings nationwide for state-level Americans for Prosperity (AFP) groups. AFP is a front group founded and bankrolled by the Koch Brothers, David and Charles Koch. It’s also done many screenings for oil and gas industry trade associations.

“FrackNation” also played in front of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in February 2013, which Dave Weigel of Slate reported ”around 40 Republican staffers and members of Congress” attended.

In contrast, Josh Fox was arrested at the same Committee’s hearing a month earlier while filming for his then upcoming film for “unlawful entry.”

Missing Context: “FrackNation” Snubs Festival Screening Terms

McAleer’s claim is that “FrackNation” has been bludgeoned into silence by the FRFF organizers.

“What country am I living in?,” he asked rhetorically in an interview with the Winona Post. “I thought that this was America. I thought that people actually appreciated dissent.”

But that’s not the whole story, according to FRFF organizers, who said it’s the festival’s standard operating procedure that film representatives come for post-film discussions and question-and-answer sessions.

“Upon original acceptance we stated that a filmmaker attend with the film and join in a moderated public forum, as engagement is an important part of our mission,” reads a press release they posted on Facebook about canceling the film’s screening. “We offered to pay travel and lodging to anyone from the film who could attend. They declined to send someone, so we will not be screening the film.”

FRFF provided DeSmogBlog the email exchange between Festival Director Crystal Hegge and “FrackNation” co-director Magdalena Segieda outlined in FRFF’s press release.

“Is there anyone associated with the film that could come to the festival?,” Hegge asked in a December 19 email. “If no one from the film can come to the festival I may have to rethink my arrangement because there will be a lot of dead time in this particular theater without a Q&A or panel.”

Segieda responded, but didn’t address the possibility of the “FrackNation” screening being canceled if a film spokesperson couldn’t attend the festival.

“Unfortunately, no one from the FrackNation team would be able to come,” wrote Segieda in a December 20 email. ”Let me know when you set the the time, I will wait for your laurel to start promoting the screening.”

FRFF told DeSmogBlog it had a local frac sand industry sponsor give $1,000 to the film festival to support a member of the “FrackNation” team coming to the film festival.

But after Segieda informed Hegge that “FrackNation” couldn’t comply with FRFP’s request that they participate in a post-screening panel and after “FrackNation” asked for $10,000 from the sponsor according to Kennedy, the sponsor pulled out. From there, it was game over for screening the film at FRFF.

Initially, Kennedy envisioned a “Super Bowl” of fracking documentaries to take place at FRFF, with a debate between to ensue between McAleer and Fox. Fox couldn’t make it out.

But in his place, Calvin Tillman — the former Mayor of Dish, Texas featured in the second “Gasland” — will be on-site as a representative and speaker for the film, according to Kennedy. 

Film Fest Organizers Not Backing Down

Despite the backlash by the “FrackNation” team, FRFF organizers say they won’t back down.

They told the Winona Post, “true documentaries are independently funded,” pointing out that its role model film festivals, Telluride Mountain Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival have both also snubbed “FrackNation” and concluded, “there is a growing national consensus that the film does not qualify as a documentary.”

In place of screening “FrackNation,” FRFF is hosting a forum titled “Documentaries Today: My Fact Your Fiction,” which will center around the fine line between factual documentary film and propaganda documentary-style film.

Asked if he thought the post-cancellation was manufactured and deceptive, Kennedy told DeSmogBlog, “let’s just say it was likely well thought out and coordinated and leave it there.”

**Update**: In an email interview with “FrackNation” Co-Director Magdalena Segieda, DeSmogBlog has learned additional emails were exchanged (published here with Segieda’s permission) after December 20 between the film festival coordinators and Segieda.

These emails weren’t included in the initial batch sent to DeSmogBlog by the festival organizers. In a January 7 email, Film Festival Director Crystal Hegge informed Segieda the film screening would be at 10:00 AM on January 26.

“Thanks – do you have a laurel by any chance so I can start promoting the screening on our social media?,” Segieda wrote in response to Hegge’s email.

After Hegge told Segieda all she had was a “generic laurel,” on January 10, a week passed. Then, according to the email exchange provided to DeSmogBlog by Segieda, Hegge emailed Segieda to say they had to cancel the screening a week later on January 17.

“I am writing to inform you that we will not be showing FRACKNATION during our 2014 festival,” Hegge wrote. “Due to the high quantity of films at the festival we have decided not to show this feature film without a filmmaker attendant. Thank you for your submission and please consider us in the future.”

It didn’t take long for Segieda to respond.

“But we have already published and promoted the screening with time and address to thousands of our fans on our social media,” Segieda wrote less than ten minutes later in a response email. “I have also just finished create (sic) a promo poster attached here and was going to push it out over the next couple of days.”

Asked about the discrepency in the story versions between the two camps, Phelim McAleer provided this statement to DeSmogBlog:

It is unfair that the Frozen River Film Festival has cancelled the FrackNation screening and misrepresented the true situation in the media. I think its clear that they have caved to political pressure and as a result there will not be diversity of opinion and ideas at the festival. This is not what a film festival should be about.

Obama Patron Warren Buffett Buys Over $500 Million of Suncor Tar Sands Stock

1:01 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

President Obama bestowing the Medal of Freedom on Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett — the fourth richest man on the planet and major campaign contributor to President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 – may soon get a whole lot richer.

That’s because he just bought over half a billion bucks worth of Suncor Energy stock: $524 million in the second quarter of 2013, to be precise, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Suncor is a major producer and marketer of tar sands via its wholly owned subsidiary Petro-Canada (formerly Sunoco) and this latest development follows a trend of Buffett enriching himself through dirty investments and deal-making.

So far in 2013, Suncor (formerly Sun Oil Company) has produced 328,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude.

Though he receives far less negative press than the Koch Brothers, Buffett’s no deep green ecologist. Not in the slightest.

Referred to as one of 17 “Climate Killers” by Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson in a January 2010 story, Buffett owns the behemoth holding company, Berkshire Hathway. It’s through Berkshire that he’s making a killing – while simultaneously killing the ecosystem – through one of its most profitable wholly-owned assets: Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).

Buffett purchased BNSF for $26 billion and was “the largest acquisition of Buffett’s storied career,” Dickinson wrote.

BNSF hauls around frac sand for the controversial horizontal oil and gas drilling process known as “fracking.” The rail company also moves fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin, tar sands logistical equipment and tar sands crude itself and tons of coal. And not only does Buffett’s BNSF haul around ungodly amounts of coal, he actually owns coal-burning utility companies, too.

“BNSF is the nation’s top hauler of coal, shipping some 300 million tons a year. That’s enough to light up 10 percent of the nation’s homes — many of which are powered by another Berkshire subsidiary, MidAmerican Energy,” Dickinson explained.

Beyond MidAmerican Energy, Buffett also owns the coal-burning PacifiCorp and his BNSF freight trains are largely responsible for the coal export boom unfolding in the northwest corridor of the United States.

“PacifiCorp…owns the most coal plants in the West and recently unveiled a long-term energy plan that did not include a single wind project over the next ten years,” explained a recent blog post written by the Sierra Club. “And Warren Buffett is still involved with one of the biggest coal-burning schemes of all — ongoing plans to export coal…to…Asia.”

“Buffett’s BNSF Railway would be the primary transporter of that coal, and the company has tried to get the coal export terminals approved over the objections of thousands of activists across the Pacific Northwest.”

And as his slam dunk, Buffett also has plans to convert BNSF’s freight trains to utilize fracked shale gas. He then plans to use those same shale gas-powered trains to transport fracked shale oil from North Dakota (5-percent of BNSF’s total shipments and 190,000 cars/week), a win-win for Buffett and a lose-lose for the ecosystem and the climate.

“We have a couple locomotives we’re experimenting with this year on it. The railroads are definitely experimenting with converting to natural gas,” he told CNBC’s Jim Cramer in a March 2013 interview. “[Y]ou’ve got to look at converting any kind of an engine to natural gas.”

‘Tis quite the list of “dirty deeds” by the man coined the “Oracle of Omaha.” And relative to his uber-wealth – to cue up the AC/DC – they’re “done dirt cheap.” Read the rest of this entry →

Sand Land: Fracking Industry Mining Iowa’s Iconic Sand Bluffs in New Form of Mountaintop Removal

10:18 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

This is a collaborative report by DeSmog’s Steve Horn and Mint Press News staff writer Trisha Marczak.

A cave leads out to a forest.

A cave in Iowa's Allamakee County. The area is now threatened by fracking activity.

Within immediate vicinity of a central battleground of the Black Hawk War of 1832, land rife with a resource necessary for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is in the crosshairs of an industry prepared to turn the area into a battle zone once again.

The resource? Frac sand – officially known by the industry as fine-grained silica sand — used as a proppant when blasted thousands of feet down the well during the ecologically volatile fracking process as part of the chemical cocktail that serves as the subject of Josh Fox’s new documentary film, Gasland 2.

The rolling hills of Northeastern Iowa’s Allamakee County defy the state’s stereotypical flat-land geography, and local residents boast of the serene beauty and rich geological history. Yet those same bluffs also play host to robust reservoirs of frac sand.

In order to extract the frac sand, mining corporations have adopted a method of newfangled mountaintop removal of sorts, blasting away entire hills laced with this frac sand to access this new “prize.” While devastating the landscape, it’s justified by Big Oil as necessary because the Midwest’s unparalleled geological characteristics have transformed it into a “New Saudi Arabia for frac sand.”

The Ominous Situation in Allamakee

Frac sand extraction is temporarily on hiatus in Allamakee, where the County Board issued an 18-month moratorium in February 2013. Despite this legislative move, concerned residents living in the county see the writing on the wall. That’s because permits are already being issued for frac sand-centric rail construction loading zones. Citizens see it as a question not of “if” but of “when.”

Allamakee County residents don’t have to look far to see evidence the industry is creeping in.

Less than 30 miles away, one of Pattison Sand Company’s mines located south of McGregor, Iowa, is already churning out frac sand, blasting away whole sections of ancient bluffs to obtain it. A quaint 150-foot bluff that stood near the mine just two years ago has now been replaced by barren land.

“This is why we’re fighting this,” Allamakee County resident Jeff Abbas told us while standing near Pattison’s mine, located feet away from what used to be the enormous bluff. “It took hundreds of thousands of years to build this landscape the way it is.”

Like his neighbors, Abbas’s motive for opposing frac sand mining in his County has numerous rationales, yet at the core is his appreciation for the land’s historical significance and beauty.

It’s incredibly fragile, it’s incredibly rare … and now, it’s incredibly gone,” he said. “It will never be replaced in our lifetime … in anybody’s lifetime.

The landscape is an issue that tugs on the heartstrings of locals, yet it’s just one concern on a long list of objections.

The silica-rich land of Allamakee County sits atop the Jordan Aquifer, a source of water for 300,000 Iowans not expected to last much longer with current usage rates. Areas of the aquifer are already expected to reach depletion in the next 50 years, according to an Iowa Geological and Water Survey.

The health impacts of frac sand exposure are also alarming for residents and workers, as recently documented in a June 2012 Occupational Safety and Health Administration bulletin, which highlighted that fine-grained silica exposure causes silicosis which can lead to lung cancer. This sordid scientific reality is also acknowledged in Pattison Sand Company’s own literature.

Pattison’s Political Connections to the Powerful

Read the rest of this entry →

Second US Tar Sands Mine, Owned by Former ExxonMobil and Chevron Exec., Approved in Utah

8:37 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

MCW Enterprises Ltd., a Canada-based corporation, announced on Nov. 19 that it has received all necessary permits to streamline tar sands extraction at its Asphalt Ridge plant located in Vernal, Utah starting in December.

Protest Banner: All Markets Peak, All Pipelines Leak

Tar Sands protest in New Orleans

The announcement comes just weeks after U.S. Oil Sands Company received the first ever green light to extract tar sands south in the United States.

Recently changing its name from MCW Energy, MCW Enterprises Ltd. owns MCW Oil Sands Recovery LLC as a wholly owned subsidiary. The company’s CEO, R. Gerald Bailey – often also referred to as Raymond Bailey or Jerry Bailey - is the former President of Exxon Arabian Gulf and also served as an Executive for Texaco (since purchased by Chevron) for 15 years.

MCW’s website explains that its stake in the Asphalt Ridge is a “proven/probable resource of over 50+ million barrels of oil” and that it “is seeking other oil sands leases in Utah, which contains over 32 billion barrels of oil within 8 major deposits.”

Bailey told Flahrety Financial News that he sees this first project as a crucible, or testing grounds, with the potential for more extraction to come down the road.

“This is really going to be a technology play,” he stated. “I don’t plan to build another Exxon out there in the desert.”

The Frac Sand Connection

In June 2012, Temple Mountain Energy (TME) – also based in Vernal, UT – cut a five-year oil sands supply agreement deal with MCW.

“Under this five year Supply Agreement, Temple Mountain will supply MCW with 8,333 tons of oil sands material per month until the year 2016,” MCW’s website explains.

Once the bitumen is extracted, TME plans on selling the fine-grained sand under which it sits to unconventional oil and gas companies forhydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

“The recent rapid expansion of shale gas and shale oil drilling…has greatly increased the need for fracking sand in this region,” TME wrote on it website. “Asphalt Ridge is well-positioned to serve this high-volume market—both in terms of geographic location and in terms of sand quality.”

To date, frac sand mining companies have targeted five states - WisconsinMinnesotaTexasArkansas, and Iowa - transforming tens of thousands of acres of land into “Sand Land.” Utah is soon to become number six.

Race for What’s Left: End of “Easy Oil,” Heavy Price to Pay

With domestic unconventional oil and gas wells under-producing, setting the stage for the shale gas bubble to burst, the push to extract tar sands in the United States is a depiction of the oil and gas industry’s reckless push to extract every last drop in a “race for what’s left.”

The age of “easy oil,” to borrow the term from scholar Michael Klare, is over. In a May 2012 interview with FutureMoneyTrends.com, Bailey acknowledged this as well, stating that the “cheap, easy oil is pretty much behind us.”

Bailey defines “cheap” here with regards to the price of extracting the “tough oil” from a production point-of-view.

But as the Alberta tar sands north of the border have shown, it’s the ecosystem and climate that really pays the heaviest price of all. Read the rest of this entry →

LA Times Covers “Sand Land,” Ecological Hazards of Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin

12:08 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

On Nov. 19, The Los Angeles Times’ Neela Banerjee, writing from Chippewa County, WI, explained what we covered here in June in our “Sand Land” investigation.

The skinny: mining for frac sand creates a whole slew of problems and must be taken into consideration in the “cradle to grave” equation when quantifying the ecological hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for unconventional oil and gas.

“In time, 800 acres of farmland will be mined to feed an energy boom sweeping the United States,” explained Banerjee.

The crystalline silica sand currently being mined from this farm land is blasted into hard rock shale basins during the horizontal drilling process popularly referred to as fracking. This particular fine-grained, circular sand is the perfect shape to break open up pours for shale oil and gas to flow out from under the ground.

“Ground zero for industrial sand mining is western Wisconsin, in counties like Trempealeau, Buffalo and Chippewa,” wrote Banerjee, echoing our findings here on DeSmog. ”At least 60 industrial sand mines are functioning or in the permit process in the area, up from five in 2010…[A] fracked well could use anywhere from 2 million to 5 million pounds of sand.”

The airborne dust eminating from mining for frac sand, a study published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently demonstrated, can lead to silicosis for miners working on site. Comparatively speaking, “little is known about its effect on people who live near mine sites,” Banerjee explained.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Crispin Pierce, a toxicologist and head of the environmental public health, believes a comparison between smoking cigarettes and exposure to secondhand smoke is an apt one to make here.

“These are dangerous substances, but what are the levels you’re exposed to if you live near a sand mine or near a rail line where trains filled with sand pass five times a day?” he rhetorically asked The Times.

A “Hopeless” Future?

Community members aren’t happy with the ever-expanding “land grab” unfolding and some have chosen to speak out.

“People here say this is an issue of property rights, that they can do what they want with their land,” Ken Schmitt, a cattle farmer and anti-mining activist told The Times. “But individual rights end when you start affecting others’ health and welfare.”

Others are completely distraught and feel all hope is lost.

“Fighting this just seems so hopeless,” said an anoymous cranberry farmer. “The companies just have so much money. They can just buy everybody. It seems like nothing can stop them. There’s got to be better ways than this.”

From the frac sand mines; to shale gas basins around the world; from the unmonitored and unregulated pipelines that take that fracked gas and ship it to market; and lastly, to LNG export terminals; the unconventional gas industry is destroying the ecological landscape from cradle to grave.