December Oil Patch Roundup

THE NEW WEBSITE

So now the North Dakota Health Department has activated its new Oilfield Environmental Incidents website, one that, as I understand it, has been in the works for a long time, but was activated in response to criticism that they held onto information from the major Williams County oil spill last fall (reportedly the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history) for too long without notifying the public. The site works. That’s the good news. The bad news is, it’s almost a case of too much information. Because there is just so much bad news on it, it is depressing to look at.

It has five categories of “Environmental Incidents” on it, with links to each category, and then links to a PDF of the incident report for each of the reported incidents. Here’s the news:

General Environmental Incidents that occurred in the last 12 months. There were 271 reports, mostly from the Oil Patch for stupid things like “Oil was released from the line once the driver disconnected his hose and drove away leaving the valve open at the loading pot.” But there were a scattering of incidents from around the state, like

–A semi-trailer accident on I-94 involving some medical waste

–A diesel tanker rollover in Cass County which spilled some diesel fuel in the    ditch.

–A real uffda–191 gallons of fuel oil dumped into someone’s basement in Grand Forks County by a driver at the wrong address (you may have read about this in the newspaper)

General Environmental Incidents older than 12 months. There were 1,930 incidents on this list dating back to 1975, again many in the oil patch, but a real variety, like the doofus (a contractor from California) in Flaxton hired to tear down the school building who thought it would be easier to just burn all the asbestos in the building rather than hauling it to an approved dump site. Burned for days. Busted.

Oilfield Environmental Incidents that occurred within the last 12 months which were contained within the boundaries of the production or exploration facility.  1,320 reports, mostly a few gallons or barrels of oil spilled on a well pad which didn’t go anywhere. It is pretty obvious from these reports that oilfield workers are told to report everything that goes on, and that they are pretty diligent about it.

  Oilfield Environmental Incidents that occurred within the last 12 months which were not contained, for example, an overflow of the boundaries of the facility or a leak from a facility pipeline. This is the bad one. 389 of these incidents in the last 12 months, averaging more than one spill a day which gets away and contaminates something that should not be contaminated. This is where you’ll find the reports of two spills into tributaries of the Little Missouri River in the last few weeks, and the big one, the 865,000 gallon spill from a Tesoro pipeline in Williams County. There is a good record of Health Department followup to the Tesoro incident in this report, which is open and ongoing. The original report filed Sept. 30 listed the spill at 750 barrels. A followup report on October 5, after the Health Department had been there to inspect, upgraded the spill to 20,600 barrels. The last entry on the report is dated November 20, and about one fourth of the oil had been recovered. A fence has been installed around the entire 7.5 acres on which the spilled oil remains and the gate is locked to keep out intruders and nosy bloggers. It looks like it will be Spring before much of the remainder of the cleanup is done.

Oilfield Environmental Incidents older than 12 months. This is a massive database listing 7,585 incidents dating back to 1975. If you don’t have anything to do on a cold winter afternoon, look through this sometime. It is fascinating. And depressing to see what we are doing to our landscape.

Whither the Map?

While the site works, it could be better. A map would help. The incident reports list the legal description of each one, but not the GPS coordinates. If you don’t have a map of the state with every range, township and section on it, you can’t really find out where most of these occurred. And even if you do, you can’t pinpoint the location of the spill within a given section of land. You know which county they are in, but without the right map, it is pretty hard to figure out where in the county it took place. A map showing each incident would also help tell us if there is a particular area that is seeing more than its fair share of incidents.

I am told that Health Department staff originally proposed a map for the site but it was vetoed by someone at a “higher pay grade.” Let’s see, that would either by Jack Dalrymple or Lynn Helms, I suppose. I also suppose a map of incidents from the last year with 380 little flags on it would be pretty embarrassing for the industry, and that whoever vetoed the map was providing the industry a little cover. After all, the incident report list conveniently has only 17 listings per page, so you don’t get a sense off the enormity of the problem just by looking at the first page of the website. You have to scroll through 23 pages of the database, at 17 incidents per page, to look at all of the incidents from the past 12 months.

We should all be troubled if, indeed, someone with more authority than the State Health Officer made a “political” decision not to include a map, or any other useful features that might make the industry look bad. It would be nice if some media person at a higher pay grade than me (that would be all of them) would do their job and call the Capitol and ask if the story I heard is true.

GETTING THE FACTS STRAIGHT

            I’ve been looking at a website called the North Dakota Energy Forum this week. At the top of the home page of the website it says “Bringing experts and verifiable facts to North Dakota’s energy discussion.” About halfway down the page there’s a link that says “Energy Facts. No opinions, just facts.”  Well, here are some of their “verifiable” facts:

  1. North Dakota is the 3rd-largest oil producing state.
  2. Oil production from Bakken and Three Forks is estimated to grow from 350,000/bpd to more than 700,000/bpd in the next 4 to 7 years, surpassing both Alaska and California in production.
  3. The USGS estimates roughly 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil are contained in the Montana and North Dakota portion of the Bakken Formation.

Huh? Facts? I don’t think so. Redux:

  1. Everyone knows North Dakota is 2nd, not 3rd. (The numbers are on this website of the U.S.  Energy Information Administration (EIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Energy.)
  2. We already went over 900,000 bpd this year and will probably hit a million barrels a day this month or next. (Same agency, different web page)
  3. A government study released earlier this year estimates the amount of recoverable oil in the Bakken Formation in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana at 7.4 billion barrels (okay, they added in South Dakota, but it ain’t adding much). (Same agency, different web page)

So who’s responsible for the “verifiable facts” on the Energy Forum website? Well, at the bottom of the home page, it says Copyright 2013. Sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.

Hey, API, time to update your website, don’t you think? Maybe check in with an official government website? Get those “facts” right? After all, the API never puts out wrong facts, do they?

UNPAID BILLS 

You may have read this in the newspaper: The city of Williston has written off more than $430,000 in ambulance bills owed to its city ambulance service. The bills were for ambulance transports of patients who could not afford to pay the ambulance charge. In other words, people who did not have medical insurance (the people who, by this time next year, will have insurance because of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which will pay their ambulance bills to the city of Williston), or who had an insurance policy that did not cover ambulance transport (the kind of cheap policies that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will get rid of in favor of policies that will pay for this kind of thing, so the property taxpayers of the city of Williston will not get stuck with the bill). The story I read didn’t relate the cause of the write-offs, but there’s little doubt that ambulance calls have increased dramatically since the beginning of the Bakken Boom, and that many of those ambulance transports were for oilfield-related accidents (including auto accidents on overcrowded, dangerous highways carrying the kinds of crazy drivers that go whizzing by you at breakneck speeds all the time when you are driving the speed limit). What’s troubling is that those oilfield workers don’t have insurance and aren’t paying their bills in spite of the hefty salaries they are commanding and the billions of dollars in profits their employers are making. Maybe there ought to be a law . . .

A MILLION CARS AND A BILLION DOLLARS

This has been in the paper too, but hasn’t generated much discussion.

A study released last summer by the nonprofit foundation Ceres, a Boston based investors group concerned about the environment, dramatizes the impacts of flaring in the Bakken. The study was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers, so it isn’t the work of some left-wing, environmental wacko group. Some key findings:

  • Between May 2011 and May 2013, volumes of flared gas have more than doubled, even though the percentage has decreased.
  • In 2012, flaring resulted in the loss of about $1 billion in fuel.
  • The greenhouse gas emissions from North Dakota flaring were the equivalent of adding 1 million cars to the road.

In addition, Ceres’ projections indicate that “total flaring volumes will continue to rise above 2012 levels through 2020 unless the percentage of flaring is reduced from its current level to below 21 percent. Furthermore, even if the state’s goal of 10 percent flaring were achieved, total volumes of flared gas in 2020 would still exceed the amount flared in 2010. These findings underscore the importance of solving the problem of flaring in order to limit both environmental impacts and economic waste.” You can read the entire study here. It doesn’t take long. It has very interesting charts and graphs. Meanwhile, sit back, close your eyes, and try to imagine another million cars on our roads in North Dakota.

State officials and the industry have expressed concern. The industry formed a study group to look at ways to reduce flaring. Well, I don’t need a study group to tell me how to reduce flaring. It’s pretty simple. Just don’t issue any drilling permits to companies who can’t capture the natural gas that is going to come out of the well with the oil. I bet that would lead to some pretty quick solutions.

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