North Dakota

Wed, 2014-08-20 07:00Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Big Rail Cites Bin Laden, Al Qaeda to Fend Off Oil-by-Rail Route Transparency

While many states around the U.S. have released information to the public about the frequency and routes of trains carrying oil obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin, holdouts still remain. 

Why the delay? Homeland security concerns, claim some companies. 

In an ongoing Maryland court case over the issue of transparency for in-state oil-by-rail routes, a July 23 affidavit from Carl E. Carbaugh — director of infrastructure security for Norfolk Southern — goes into extensive detail about the supposed risk presented by terrorism attacks on “Bomb Trains.” 

In so doing, Carbaugh mentions Al-Qaeda. 

The most recent edition of Inspire magazine, March 2014, the online, English-language propaganda publication of [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], presents a full-page collage depicting varied images…in order to construct an explosive device,” reads Carbaugh’s affidavit

Among these images are a derailed passenger train and a partly covered note paper listing cities in the [U.S.] as well as the terms ‘Dakota’ and ‘Train crude oil.’” 

Carbaugh also cited Osama bin Laden, the late Al-Qaeda international ring-leader, in his affidavit.

Among the materials seized in the May 1, 2011, raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, were notes indicating interest in ‘tipping’ or ‘toppling’ trains — that is causing their derailment,” Carbaugh wrote.

Osama Bin Laden Compound Diagram; Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tue, 2014-07-08 12:27Steve Horn
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America's Dairyland Turning to Petrostate: Wisconsin Oil-By-Rail Routes Published for First Time

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.

Wed, 2014-07-02 10:38Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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For Oil-By-Rail, a Battle Between “Right to Know” and “Need to Know”

Lac Megantic train explosion

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

Fri, 2014-06-27 07:00Steve Horn
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Exclusive: North Dakota Oil-By-Rail Routes Published for First Time

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.

Wed, 2014-06-11 13:09Steve Horn
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Revealed: Emails Show ND Ethics Law Potentially Broken on Petraeus Fracking Trip

DeSmogBlog has obtained emails via North Dakota's Open Records Statute revealing facts that could be interpreted as indicating that North Dakota Treasurer Kelly Schmidt broke State Investment Board ethics laws.

The potential legal breach occurred during a late-April fracking field trip made to the state by former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus.

In a radio interview responding to DeSmogBlog's original investigation about the trip, Schmidt said rolling out the red carpet for Petraeus — who now works at Manhattan-based private equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), which holds over $1 billion in oil and gas industry assets and calls itself a “mini oil and gas company“ — was “not unusual.”

KKR initially told DeSmogBlog it followed all state and federal laws during the Petraeus visit. 

But new emails obtained by DeSmogBlog from both the North Dakota State Investment Board and the Office of the North Dakota State Treasurer call that and much more into question. 

Rewinding back to where it all began, for the final stops of the two-day Petraeus visit to North Dakota, he and his KKR colleagues Ari Barkan and Vance Serchuk met with representatives from the North State Investment Board and the North Dakota Department of Land Trusts.

Banal convenings at face-value, what preceded and followed the meetings tells a bigger story: first a crucial plane flight and then a follow-up invitation to come to New York City to talk business.

Looked at on the whole, the plane flight and what came after it raises fundamental legal and ethical questions about the burgeoning — and much-touted in some circles — North Dakota oil and gas Legacy Fund.  

Thu, 2014-05-29 17:00Steve Horn
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ND Treasurer: Red Carpet Rollout for Gen. Petraeus Fracking Field Trip "Not Unusual"

North Dakota Treasurer Kelly Schmidt has responded to DeSmogBlog's investigation of the Bakken Shale basin fracking field trip her office facilitated for former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus, who now works at the Manhattan-based private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR)

Schmidt expanded on the initial comments she provided to DeSmogBlog in response to our findings obtained via North Dakota Open Records Statute. Among other things, she described the blurred lines existing between the North Dakota government, the oil industry and private equity firms like KKR as “not unusual.” 

Schmidt's comments came on May 23 on WDAY's Jay Thomas Show, guest hosted that day by Rob Port, just over three weeks after her office hosted Petraeus.

DeSmogBlog's May 22 investigative piece revealed that KKR — which has ties to North Dakota's hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) boom via Samson Resources and The Ridge housing complex and considers itself a “mini oil and gas company” — wrote the press release for the Office of North Dakota State Treasurer announcing Petraeus' visit, closely counseled Schmidt's office on media strategy and hosted Schmidt on a company chartered private jet.

Thu, 2014-05-22 14:13Steve Horn
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Documents: Petraeus Fracking Field Trip Reveals ND Government, Oil, Private Equity Nexus

DeSmogBlog has obtained hundreds of documents portraying the blurred lines between North Dakota's government, the oil and gas industry and the private equity world. They also offer one of the first looks inside the professional life of former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus after he resigned from the agency in 2012.

The documents reveal Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) — a private equity firm where Petraeus now works at the KKR Global Institute — wrote a press release for North Dakota's State Treasurer announcing the Petraeus visit, meticulously counseled the state treasurer's office on media strategy and hosted the state treasurer on its company plane.

A large part of Petraeus' visit centered around a tour of the state's Bakken Shale basin, where upwards of 1 million barrels of oil are extracted each day via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). The Bakken pumped out its billionth barrel of oil during his stay.

KKR, with $87 billion in assets, owns two major Bakken entities: The Ridge in Williston, ND, and Samson Resources.

The Ridge is a KKR-owned housing complex for Bakken oil and gas workers, while Samson Resources is a major company fracking for oil and gas throughout the U.S., including in the Bakken.  

With over $4 billion sitting in an energy investment fund as of June 2012, KKR also owns over $950 million in oil and gas industry assets. Marc Lipschultz, head of energy and infrastructure for KKR, called the firm a “mini oil and gas company“ in an April 2013 interview with Privcap.

“We have our own technical abilities attached to the firm we have our own back office [and] we can manage the daily flows of oil and gas in drilling wells and managing our own hedges,” said Lipschultz. 

Wed, 2014-04-30 21:55Steve Horn
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Explosive Virginia Train Carried Fracked Bakken Oil, Headed to Potential Export Facility

Platts confirmed CSX Corporation's train that exploded in Lynchburg, Virginia was carrying sweet crude obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin. CSX CEO Michael Ward has also confirmed this to Bloomberg.

“Trade sources said the train was carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota and was headed to Plains All American's terminal in Yorktown,” Platts explained. “The Yorktown facility can unload 130,000 b/d of crude and is located on the site of Plains oil product terminal.”

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a Safety Alert concluding Bakken crude is more flammable than heavier oils. Hence the term “bomb trains.”

At least 50,000 gallons of the oil headed to Yorktown is now missing, according to ABC 13 in Lynchburg. Some of it has spilled into the James River, as previously reported on DeSmogBlog.

A map available on CSX's website displaying the routes for its crude-by-rail trains offers a clear indication of where the train was headed.


Map Credit: CSX Corporation

Formerly a refinery owned by Standard Oil and then BP/Amoco, Plains All American has turned the Yorktown refinery into a mega holding facility. 

Yorktown may become a key future site for crude oil exports if the ban on exports of oil produced domestically in the U.S. is lifted. 

Thu, 2014-04-17 05:00Sharon Kelly
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After Over a Decade of Fracking, Oversight of Industry's Radioactive Waste Still Lacking

It has been roughly twelve years since fracking launched the great shale rush in the U.S. and the biggest problem with the technology — how to safely dispose of the enormous quantities of toxic waste generated — remains unsolved.

In particular, regulators have struggled to fully understand or police the hazards posed by radioactivity found in fracking waste.

The most common form of radioactivity in shale waste comes from radium-226, which happens also to be an isotope that takes the longest to decay. To be exact, radium-226’s half-life of roughly 1,600 years means that well over a millennium and a half from now, more than half of the radium that fracking brings to the surface today will still be emitting dangerous radioactive particles.

Concern about the waste has taken on renewed urgency in light of a detailed report published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a peer-reviewed scientific journal which is backed by the National Institutes of Health. The study concluded that worrisome and extensive gaps in federal and state oversight of this radioactivity problem still persist.

At the federal level, radioactive oil and gas waste is exempt from nearly all the regulatory processes the general public might expect would govern it,” the researchers wrote. “State laws are a patchwork.’”

This is not an entirely new finding. Several years ago, a New York Times investigative piece highlighted how the oil and gas industry routinely dumped radium-laced waste water into rivers. State regulators in Pennsylvania and the oil and gas industry adamantly denied there was a problem.

So what's changed? The recent academic study concludes that even several years later, worrisome oversight lapses remain. As such, the researchers wrote, there is continuing reason for concern.

We are troubled by people drinking water that [could potentially have] radium-226 in it,” David Brown, a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, told the researchers (insert in original). “When somebody calls us and says ‘is it safe to drink our water,’ the answer is ‘I don’t know.’”

Mon, 2014-03-24 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Research Shows Some Test Methods Miss 99 Percent of Radium in Fracking Waste

Every year, fracking generates hundreds of billions of gallons of wastewater laced with corrosive salts, radioactive materials and many other chemicals. Because some of that wastewater winds up in rivers after it’s treated to remove dangerous contaminants, regulators across the U.S. have begun to develop testing regimens to gauge how badly fracking wastewater is polluted and how effective treatment plants are at removing contamination.

A newly published scientific study, however, shows that testing methods sometimes used and recommended by state regulators in the Marcellus region can dramatically underestimate the amount of radioactive radium in fracking wastewater.

These test methods can understate radium levels by as much as 99 percent, according to a scientific paper published earlier this month in Environmental Science and Technology Letters. The tests, both recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for testing radium levels in drinking water, can be thrown off by the mix of other contaminants in salty, chemical-laden fracking brine, researchers found.

Not all the radium tests from the Marcellus region dramatically understate radioactivity. Many researchers, both public and private, have used a method, called gamma spectroscopy, that has proved far more reliable than the EPA drinking water method. But the results of the research serve as a warning to regulators in states across the U.S., as they make decisions about how to monitor radioactivity in fracking waste.

People have to know that this EPA method is not updated” for use with fracking wastewater or other highly saline solutions, said Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Duke University.

The team of scientists from the University of Iowa tested “flowback water,” the water that flows out from a shale well after fracking, using several different test methods. The EPA drinking water method detected less than one percent of radium-226, the most common radioactive isotope in Marcellus wastewater.

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