You are browsing the archive for Fracked Oil.

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.”

Read the rest of this entry →

DeSmogBlog First to Publish North Dakota Oil-By-Rail Routes

9:40 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog 

A BNSF train engine heading north

Warren Buffett’s BNSF is a leader in moving fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields.

For the first time, DeSmogBlog has published dozens of documents obtained from the North Dakota government revealing routes and chemical composition data for oil-by-rail trains in the state carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale.

The information was initially submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) under the legal dictates 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.

North Dakota’s Department of Emergency Services, working in consultation with the North Dakota Office of the Attorney General, made the documents public a couple weeks after DeSmogBlog filed a June 13 North Dakota Public Records Statute request.

“There is no legal basis to protect what they have provided us at this point,” North Dakota assistant attorney general Mary Kae Kelsch said during the June 25 Department of Emergency Service’s quarterly meeting, which DeSmogBlog attended via phone. “It doesn’t meet any criteria for our state law to protect this.”

Initially, oil-by-rail giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and other rail companies sent boilerplate letters — one copy of which has been obtained by DeSmogBlog from the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security through the state’s Public Records Act — to several State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs), arguing train routes should be kept confidential.

BNSF also sent several SERCs a boilerplate contract proposal, requesting that they exempt the information rail companies were compelled to submit to the SERCs under the DOT Emergency Order from release under Freedom of Information Act. A snippet of the proposed contract can be seen below:

Dan Wilz, homeland security division director and state security advisor of the Department of Emergency Services, said the claims did not hold legal water.

“Joe can stand on a street corner and figure that out within a week’s period,” Wilz said at the quarterly meeting. “They watch the trains go through their community each and every day.”

BNSF, Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Rail) and Northern Plains Railroad all submitted information to the Department of Emergency Services.

CP Rail: 7 Trains/Week, “Highly Flammable”

In its submission to the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, CP Rail revealed it sent seven oil-by-rail trains through 13 counties in North Dakota the week of June 9-15. CP Rail also estimated it generally sends 2-5 trains through those same counties during an average week.

Some oil-by-rail trains, dubbed “bomb trains” by some due to their propensity to explode, carry over 2,677,500 gallons of fracked oil. The trains are often over a mile in length and contain over 100 cars.

The company also released information on the chemical composition of the Bakken oil it sends on its rail cars, conceding that Bakken oil is “highly flammable” and “easily ignited by heat, sparks or flames.”

Further, CP Rail admitted that Bakken oil has “a very low flash point” and that “water spray when fighting [its] fire may be inefficient.”

BNSF: Bakken Oil-By-Rail King

BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett — a major campaign contributor to President Barack Obama both in 2008 and 2012 and one of the richest men on the planet — is widely considered the king of oil-by-rail in the U.S. The documents BNSF released to the Department of Emergency Services back up the notion.

One document shows BNSF sent 31 oil-by-rail trains through Cass County, North Dakota during the week of May 29 – June 4, also saying it sends between 30-45 trains per week on average through the County. That same week, 30 BNSF trains zoomed through Barnes County, North Dakota.

A document filed the next week, covering June 5 – June 11, shows 45 trains passed through Cass County that week. Another 37 passed through Ward County, North Dakota and another 33 through McHenryPierce and Mountrail counties.

Northern Plains: Chemical Composition Revealed

In its DOT submission, Northern Plains included an expansive Bakken crude oil sample chemical composition test submitted by Musket Corporation, which has a terminal and transload site in North Dakota.

Read the rest of this entry →

Testimony: Record 36% of North Dakota Fracked Gas Was Flared in December

10:29 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

Fracking Rig

Why do fracking sites continue to flare gas?

The recent March 6 House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing titled “Benefits of and Challenges to Energy Access in the 21st Century: Fuel Supply and Infrastructure” never had over 100 online viewers watching the livestream at any point in time. And it unfolded in an essentially empty room.

But the poor attendance record had no relation to the gravity of the facts presented by testifiers. Among other things, one presenter revealed 36 percent of the gas by-product from oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin was flared off as waste during a brutally cold midwest winter with no end in sight.

These damning facts were brought forward by Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (Ceres) Oil & Gas and Insurance Programs Director Andrew Logan, one of eight people called to testify around topics ranging from domestic propane markets to fossil fuels-by-rail markets, to pipeline markets and flaring.

A topic covered previously by DeSmogBlog, Logan submitted to the Subcommittee that flaring “is getting worse, not better.”

“Flaring in North Dakota hit 36% in December, a new record,” Logan told the subcommittee. ”This means that more than 1/3 of all natural gas produced in the state is going up in smoke, at the same time as consumers around the country are seeing price spikes from natural gas in this cold winter, along with actual shortages of propane in many places.”

Logan also said that wasteful flaring is also a growing quagmire in Texas, which has seen a 10-fold increase in flaring permits since 2010.

At least one influential Subcommittee member has taken notice.

U.S. Rep. Waxman: Flaring “Wasteful and Unnecessary”

During the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman(D-CA) chimed in with his thoughts on flaring, calling for a follow-up hearing to focus exclusively on this issue.

“The wasteful and unnecessary flaring of natural gas is a serious problem and has no place in a modern energy infrastructure. I believe the Subcommittee should a hearing to get the facts regarding flaring and to develop real solutions to the problem,” said Waxman.

In an interview with DeSmogBlog, Logan said he believed that a hearing on this issue would go a long way toward tackling the flaring problem.

“Flaring, at least at the level we are currently seeing in the Bakken, is so obviously indefensible that simply shining a light on the problem should get us well on the way to a solution,” said Logan. “That being said, the Republicans obviously control the House — and therefore the subject of hearings at present — and so I don’t know how likely it is that we will see hearings anytime soon.”

“Wasteful” is an understatement given how much gas is flared off in the Bakken Shale. The amount flared off could heat over half a million homes per day, according to a New York Times investigation.

“In 2012 alone, flaring resulted in the loss of approximately $1 billion in fuel and the GHG emissions equivalent of adding one million cars to the road,” explained Ceres’ July 2013 report titled, “Flaring up: North Dakota Natural Gas Flaring More Than Doubles in Two Years.”

According to World Bank data, the U.S. is now one of the top five flarers in the world.

So, what’s being wasted? Not just methane gas, but also “rich [and] valuable natural gas liquids like propane and butane [which are] about the last gas you would want to flare,” according to Logan’s testimony.

The propane is being flared at the same time North and South Dakota face a propane crisis and accompanying price spike.

“In North and South Dakota, the shortage has become so acute that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has opened shelters to serve its population, most of whom rely on propane,” explained The New York Times.

Logan says the situation in the Dakotas epitomizes why strong federal regulations are needed.

“It’s outrageous that propane is being flared off as a waste product when Dakotans are shivering in the cold due to artificial propane shortages,” he said. “The only real solution is regulation that forces the industry to curtail flaring once and for all.”

“Flaring in North Dakota will only be solved when the regulatory structure changes so that flaring is no longer the easiest option. For that to change, the incentive structure needs to change.”

Why Flare? Profits

At the hearing, Waxman asked Logan why he thinks companies choose to flare at all.

“Well, it’s really all about the relative economics and also the state of regulation in places like North Dakota. So while it’s profitable to capture the gas, it’s more profitable to drill the next oil well,” Logan testified. “So if you’re an oil company with a limited amount of money to spend — as they all are — it’s a somewhat rational short-term choice to say, ‘Well look, if I don’t have to capture that gas, I’d rather spend that money to drill another well.’”

Read the rest of this entry →

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 →