Tag Archives: #North Dakota

What We Do In The Dark

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Almost everything about fossil fuels, by definition, happens in the dark. The organisms that form coal, gas and oil form in the dark; they are extracted from deep dark places that are under water, under mountains, beneath broad plains. From well to tank, most oil never sees the light of day unless there’s a leak, or a spill.

And then, by the time we find it, damage has already been done.

All paintings - oil on canvas Artist: i wayan sudarsana yansen

All paintings – oil on canvas
Artist: i wayan sudarsana yansen

Back in 2013, the one of the largest on-land spills in the United States took place beneath a remote piece of crop land near Tioga, North Dakota. It took several days for the farmer who owned the property to discover the spill and then report it. It took several more days to stop the spill, which was due to a leaking pipe. And it took another week or so for the authorities to report the spill to the press. The spill was estimated at 865,000 gallons (20,000 barrels).

That spill necessitated a clean-up effort that is still ongoing. The most recent cost estimate I could find online put the cost at $42 million – and that was over a year ago, when approximately one-third of the spill had been removed. From the most recent article I could find on the spill, on Oil Price.com: “The 2013 spill contaminated around 15 acres of cropland, but the cleanup site grew to 35 acres to accommodate excavated soil stockpiles from digging 50 feet deep and then baking hydrocarbons out of the soil.” The Oil Price article was actually on another, more recent spill, that of 17,000 gallons (400 barrels) of oil and 120,000 gallons of toxic drilling wastewater near Marmath.

Overall, there have been over 300 oil spills in North Dakota alone in less than two years, most of them unreported. And that doesn’t include the Dec. 5 spill into the Ash Coulee Creek of 176,000 gallons (4100 barrels) approximately 150 miles from where Standing Rock protesters have been demonstrating against an oil pipeline they say will endanger their water source.

North Dakota can stand in here as a microcosm of oil-drilling locations around the world.

In general, oil spills are like the proverbial tree falling in a forest where there’s no one to hear it – if there’s no one around to witness a spill, then as far as authorities and oil companies are concerned, it might as well not have happened. Compiling a global list of incidents in which oil escapes its pipelines, even just the known offshore and onshore spills, would be a virtually impossible task, even if oil companies were ready and willing to expose the underbelly of the business.

This opacity when it comes to the collateral damage of our oil dependency extends to other aspects of the oil industry, from the funding of climate change skeptics through ‘dark money’ to the fighting of environmental regulations around the world.

So, what to make of the nomination of an oil company chief to the United States’ highest diplomatic post, that of Secretary of State, key advisor on foreign policy and fourth in line to the Presidency? Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (largest U.S. oil company by revenue), is undoubtedly an extremely able individual, manager and businessman. He is also the person who said, just a couple of months before the big spill in North Dakota, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers? (…) My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do (…) The rest is risk management.”

The question is, where does the management begin, and where does it end? How much of this management will truly be brought to light?

The Shape of Absence

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Absence of information has the curious characteristic of being innocuous as long as it goes unnoticed, and undeniably intriguing once it becomes apparent. Once you notice something is missing, you can’t stop looking at the hole where it should be and wondering what should actually be there.

For example, a recent report published by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows just how little data is publicly available on the subject of oil and gas company spills and other violations in the United States.

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould (1873/ 2014),  from the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image. Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould
(1873/ 2014)
From the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image.
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

I noticed this some time ago when I posted comments on the large 2013 Tesoro oil spill in North Dakota that took over a week to report to the press (and which is still in the clean-up process, 18 months and $20 million later).

I looked for data on oil spills across the 36 U.S. states with active oil and gas installations, but information was difficult to find. I attributed that difficulty to my own lack of time and online savvy, but as it turns out, the reason runs deeper.

Neither state nor federal regulatory agencies provide this data in any consistent form, and if corporations have extensive monitoring and data on spills, they are keeping it to themselves for the most part.

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby (1897/ 2014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby
(1897/ 2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

According to the NRDC study, many violations are never reported at all. It should be added that many violations aren’t considered report-worthy because of lax standards and enforcement found in many states.

What happens when no consistent records are kept?

There can be no true accountability of the impact of oil and gas industry operations and activities on the communities and environments in which they conduct business. Noncompliance with safety standards and construction requirements becomes difficult to enforce due to the lack of a track record. The same goes for on-site worker safety regulations and compliance.

Companies with an (invisible) history of violations can skirt notice and supervision. The true boundaries of pollution and damage can be minimized or even denied.

The NRDC report makes for interesting reading and now I can’t stop looking at the empty space where all the information should be.

'RIP Audubon's Bighorn Sheep' (18492014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

‘RIP Audubon’s Bighorn Sheep’ (1849/2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

 

Subterranean Lines

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A fracking well at the surface. Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

A fracking well at the surface.
Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

The bulk of the fracking boom currently underway in the United States is not only in one of the least populated and remote states, North Dakota (population 724,000 – and it’s only that large because of the fracking boom and all the new workers there), but it also takes place mostly underground. Sure, there are the ominous towers of gas flames and the torn up ground at the extraction points, but the real action takes place so far beneath the topsoil layer as to render it abstract.

The gap between what fracking looks like from above, and what it looks like from below, reminds me of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s drawings in The Little Prince. What everyone initially takes to be a sketch of hat is actually a rendering of something completely different, namely, an elephant inside a snake.

From The Little Prince By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

From The Little Prince
By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

We humans are creatures of visual dependence. Or rather, what we can see tends to make the most conscious impression upon us, ahead of the more subtle senses of sound, taste, smell and touch.

And often, what is out of sight is truly out of mind. If we can’t see it, we have a hard time even thinking about it.

Well locations around New Town, N.D. Source: Fractracker

Well locations around New Town, N.D.
Source: Fractracker

These various maps and renderings of fracking in North Dakota attempt to make the underground activity more tangible, to show us the elephant inside the hat.

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota. Source: Mason Inman/Wired

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota.
Source: Mason Inman/Wired

According to Mason Inman over at Map Labs, who created the map above, “Each well travels down about two miles, then turns horizontally and snakes through the rock formation for another two miles. There were 8,406 of these Bakken wells, as of North Dakota’s latest count. If you lined them all up—including their vertical and horizontal parts—they’d loop all the way around the Earth.”

The New York Times took the added step of inverting the wells as if they were above ground, the long vertical drills standing like slender trunks one or two miles high, with only one or two branches of equal length suspended in the air, a high forest of activity.

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground
Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

 

The Whale in the Water

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The Dutch painting here, by Hendrick van Anthonissen, has led a double life.

In its original form, it showed an object of fascination: a freshly stranded whale at during the mid-17th century. There was a widespread public interest in these large creatures around this time, which saw an expanding Dutch whaling industry and widespread use of whale blubber as an oil source.

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641) Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641)
Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

Sometime during the 19th century, the painting was transformed into a quiet beach scene, the dead animal/fuel source painted over, perhaps because the painting’s owner didn’t like the whale but liked the beach, or because whales had lost some of their allure as an exotic beast and source of energy, and had been reduced to just another material resource for everything from buggy whips to corset stays. And oil.

The whale-less version. Source: The History Blog

The whale-less version.
Source: The History Blog

Whale oil was once our favorite oil for lighting the dark nights. This was long before we used other kinds of oil to power our modern world.

Lately, there have been so many articles recently about hydraulic fracturing – fracking – for gas and shale oil.

One says the debate over fracking is over – because the fracking side won.

Another says the UK government wants to grant land access to fracking companies (i.e. oil and gas companies) to exploit land 300 m (985 ft) beneath the surface, and suggests a payment of £20,000 per well to those living on the surface. Here’s one that announces a 96% reduction in the estimate of oil and gas reserves that could be exploited in California, even as optimistic California oil companies and politicians ignore the study and continue to position themselves for a new oil rush.

And here’s an article that says even North Dakota, an epicenter of fracking enthusiasm, is considering some limitations when it comes to issuing drilling permits in historical sites, parks or areas of particular beauty.

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming. Photo: Linda Baker

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming..
If this were a painting, it would be easy enough to imagine wanting to view the landscape minus the rig.
Photo: Linda Baker

Lost in this entire discussion, for the moment, is whether the pursuit of and massive investment in oil and gas is a reasonable course of action when compared to the same kind of investment in renewable energy sources.

Sure, natural gas emits less CO2 – but a recent U.S. Department of Energy report indicates that the reduced carbon dioxide emissions for the so-called ‘cleaner’ fossil-fuel are outweighed by much higher emissions of other, more harmful greenhouse gases such as methane over the life cycle of liquefied natural gas.

Whoever varnished over the whale in the van Anthonissen painting decided it was no longer an appetizing sight, and preferred to have groups of passers-by gazing out at a calm sea untroubled by an unsightly cetacean, symbol of a major source of wealth, oil, employment and commerce.

I see the discussion over the use of fossil fuels disappearing in the same way as the whale in the water – simply varnished over in favor of a more pleasant view: That of easy energy, jobs, tax income and wealth from fossil fuels, without any unsightly environmental or human costs.

 

Submerged Lines

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We humans are visual creatures. It’s in our nature to focus on what we can see, it’s in our nightmares to focus on the unseen and the hidden because we just aren’t very good at preparing ourselves for what isn’t readily visible. Even within our own bodies, some of the most dangerous illnesses are the ones with few symptoms – at least until they suddenly erupt. High blood pressure seems like no big deal until a stroke hits.

Somehow, we manage to have the same approach to pathways and passages which we ourselves have built. Like forgetful squirrels, we lay pipelines for oil and gas supplies, assume the supply will remain intact, and then put them out of our minds.

Pipelines to carry oil have been laid all around the world for a century. And like any pipe, at some point they show their signs of age. Pipes can break due to corrosion, excavation work, material and welding errors, natural force, external damage (such as anchors hitting underwater pipes), and faulty operation.

Mostly, though, it’s age and material failure that cause leaks like the recent Tioga leak in North Dakota, the largest U.S. onshore spill in history. A quick glance here will reveal an unsettling, ongoing litany of oil spills during any given month.

Lakehead System Source: Enbridge

Lakehead System
Source: Enbridge

In Michigan, two 50 cm (20 in.) pipes were laid down in 1953 as a part of the 3000 km (1900 m.) Lakehead System that runs from North Dakota down to points east and south. Most of the Lakehead system is underground, this segment, known as Line 5, runs underwater through the Straits of Mackinac between northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The pipes traverse the juncture between two Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. “While Line 5’s capacity has increased, neither regulatory scrutiny nor corporate transparency have followed suit. The Great Lakes, which contain 84% of North America’s and 20% of the planet’s surface freshwater, are at a greater risk than ever,” according to FLOW, a non-profit organization working to protect the Great Lakes.

This map produced by the National Wildlife Federation estimates the extent to which oil might flow from a pipeline rupture beneath the Straits of Mackinac.  Source: NWF

This map produced by the National Wildlife Federation estimates the extent to which oil might flow from a pipeline rupture beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
Source: NWF

Line 5 is owned and operated by Enbridge Energy Partners LP, a company that insists the lines have been operating well for ‘decades’ and are perfectly intact. This is the same company whose lines burst and polluted the Kalamazoo River at a continuing clean-up cost of four years and over $1 billion.

Sometimes, the unseen around which we build our nightmares doesn’t merit closer examination; it’s just smoke and ephemera, the stuff of tall stories.

This probably isn’t one of those cases.

Straits of Mackinac Source: FLOW

Straits of Mackinac
Source: FLOW

Oil Koan

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Jensen wheat field, Tesoro oil spill, North Dakota Photo/Credit: Neil Lauron / Greenpeace

Jensen wheat field, Tesoro oil spill, North Dakota
Photo/Credit: Neal Lauron / Greenpeace

Looks small, doesn’t it? Just a black patch in a vast sea of brown soil.

A couple of days ago, a Greenpeace photographer flew over the site of one of the largest onshore oil spills in United States history. It had taken over a week for the Tesoro spill near Tioga, North Dakota, to be reported to the press. And that was only after the farmer who discovered the spill on his land, Steve Jensen, had reported it to the local authorities. Jensen discovered the oil merrily spurting six inches high out of a “perfectly round, quarter-inch hole” with “about 100 pounds pressure,” and “it had been leaking for awhile.”

How long? Long enough for a quarter-inch hole to spout over 800,000 gallons of oil into what used to be a wheat field. Long enough for Jensen to have smelled the scent of oil on the air ‘for days’ ahead of his tour of that particular back field.

Closer view of the Tesoro spill, which covers 7 acres. Photo/Credit: Neil Lauron / Greenpeace

Closer view of the Tesoro spill, which covers 7 acres.
Photo/Credit: Neal Lauron / Greenpeace

I spent quite a bit of time looking at the pictures of this spill before I realized what I wasn’t seeing: The usual pod of television camera set-ups. Thus far, more than two weeks after the spill, the only photos you are likely to find are from Greenpeace.

So, why the lack of interest? Is it because this spill seems to be out in the middle of nowhere, and Tesoro insists that no groundwater has been contaminated, no wildlife harmed? Jensen has said he expects that he will not “be able to farm that land for a few years and there’ll be compensation for sure.” Negotiations with the company have not yet begun. “That is going to come later. We’re looking at a two to three-year cleanup.”

For the moment, the cause of the leak is being blamed on the corrosion of the 20-year-old pipeline. The delay in reporting the incident was first blamed on the government shutdown, but I think blame is more clearly on the fact that in North Dakota, state authorities are not required to report oil spills to the press.

In the United States, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) manages pipeline safety through its aptly named Office of Pipeline Safety. There are 100 inspectors for 2.5 million miles of pipeline, and 1.5 full-time employees to oversee the 450 emergency response plans for 450 facilities nationwide.

Here’s a map of oil and gas pipelines in the United States.

Oil and gas pipelines Source: ProPublica Click here for the interactive version

Oil and gas pipelines
Source: ProPublica
Click here for the interactive version

And here’s an interactive map of major spill or leak events from 1986-2012.

Pipeline events labeled 'significant' by US regulators, 1986-2012 Source: ProPublica Click here for the interactive version

Pipeline events labeled ‘significant’ by US regulators, 1986-2012
Source: ProPublica
Click here for the interactive version

A similar amount of oil to that of the Tesoro spill leaked into the Enbridge Kalamazoo River spill of 2010. That clean-up has been estimated to cost over $1 billion, plus a $3.7 million fine for Enbridge. For some perspective on those amounts, consider that Enbridge filed a revenue of $1.67 billion – for the second quarter of 2013 alone.

What puzzles me is that this energy source is still referred to as good, cheap energy. Cheap for who?

So far, it looks like Tesoro got lucky. This time.

If environmental disaster falls on deaf ears, is it still a disaster?

Views: Below, Surface, Above

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Bakken Formation Image: Bakken Decision Support System (BDSS)

Bakken Formation
Image: Bakken Decision Support System (BDSS)

The image above shows a schematic of the Bakken Formation,, which lies along the U.S.-Canadian border, beneath the prairies of North Dakota and Montana. It is considered to be the largest reserve of oil in the lower 48 U.S. states.

North Dakota separates property ownership of land surface from ‘bottomland’, what lies beneath the surface. This has become a lucrative form of land ownership over the past few years as new fracking projects have turned vast tracts of prairie and farmland into a new oil heartland, sometimes over the vehement objections of farmers who bought land without realizing they didn’t really own more than a plow’s depth of dirt.

Farmland above the Bakken Formation. Source: LandandFarm

Farmland above the Bakken Formation.
Source: LandandFarm

And now that heartland has its first major oil spill, which already counts as one of the largest onshore spills in U.S. history. 20,600 barrels – equivalent to 865,200 gallons (3.2 million liters) – were belatedly discovered bubbling up from a faulty ageing pipeline on an area the size of 7 football fields within a remote wheat farm.

The pipeline company, Tesoro Logistics, has thus far succeeded in cleaning up around 5% of the spill. The company claims that neither surface nor groundwater was affected in any way, nor will there be any adverse effect on the environment. In any case, according to the farmer who owns the land, the fields will be unusable as farmland for the foreseeable future.

An image of the Bakken Shale area, the large glow on the upper left, by night. The lights are from the fracking and oil extraction sites. Image: NASA via jad.blog

An image of the Bakken Shale area, the large glow on the upper left, by night.
The lights there are from fracking and oil extraction activites, while the other bright clusters are cities.
Image: NASA via jad.blog

More:

Excellent National Geographic article on the development of North Dakota oil and its impact on the economy, people and land – The New Oil Landscape by Edwin Dobb