North Dakota

Fri, 2015-04-17 04:58Steve Horn
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"Carbon Copy": How Big Oil and King Coal Ghost Write Letters for Public Officials, Business Groups

The Billings Gazette has revealed that coal mining company Cloudpeak Energy ghost wrote protest letters to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) on behalf of allied policymakers and business groups. 

Reporter Tom Lutey examined numerous letters written to DOI from Montana-based stakeholders and noticed something unusual: the language in every single letter was exactly the same. That is, the same except for a parenthetical note in one of them instructing the supposed writer of it to “insert name/group/entity.”

The “carbon copied” (pun credit goes to Lutey) letters requested for the DOI to give states a time extension to begin implementing new rules dictating the coal industry give states a “fair return” on mining leases granted to industry by the states. DOI ended up giving King Coal the 60-day extension.

“Last month, coal proponents scored a major victory by convincing the Department of Interior to hold off on its rule making for 60 days so that more people could respond,” Lutey wrote. “Members of the Montana Legislature, along with county commissioners and mayors from Montana and Wyoming communities put the weight of their political offices behind letters asking the DOI for more time. What they didn’t offer were their own words.”

Among those who submitted a “carbon copied” letter originally written by Cloudpeak Energy include the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Montana Coal Council, Montana Sen. Debby Barrett and the Yellowstone County Board of Commissioners.  

Unlike others, the Montana Chamber of Commerce embarassingly forgot to take out the boilerplate “insert name/group/entity” language. 

Montana Chamber of Commerce Ghostwriting Coal Letter
Image Credit: Quit Coal

Cloud Peak responded by saying this was a “sample letter…included as part of…briefings,” but did not clarify if those allied stakeholders were supposed to send them to DOI in verbatim fashion, as did the Montana Chamber.

Thu, 2015-04-02 13:54Steve Horn
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BNSF Engineer Who Manned Exploding North Dakota "Bomb Train" Sues Former Employer

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) employee who worked as a locomotive engineer on the company's oil-by-rail train that exploded in rural Casselton, North Dakota in December 2013 has sued his former employer

Filed in Cass County, the plaintiff Bryan Thompson alleges he “was caused to suffer and continues to suffer severe and permanent injuries and damages,” including but not limited to ongoing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues.

Thompson's attorney, Thomas Flaskamp, told DeSmogBlog he “delayed filing [the lawsuit until now] primarily to get an indication as to the direction of where Mr. Thompson's care and treatment for his PTSD arising out of the incident was heading,” which he says is still being treated by a psychiatrist.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the oil-by-rail world, the only time to date that someone working on an exploding oil train has taken legal action against his employer using the Federal Employers' Liability Act.

BNSF Engineer Casselton Lawsuit

Image Credit: State of North Dakota District Court; East Central Judicial District

Tue, 2015-03-24 15:58Steve Horn
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Purposeful Distraction? Unpacking the Oil Refiners' "Bomb Trains" Lawsuit vs. Warren Buffett's BNSF

On March 13, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) — the oil refiners' trade association — sued oil-by-rail carrying giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) for allegedly violating its common carrier obligation under federal law. A DeSmogBlog investigation has revealed there may be more to the lawsuit than initially meets the eye.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, AFPM sued BNSF “for violating its common carrier obligation by imposing a financial penalty” for those carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin and other hazardous petroleum products in explosion-prone DOT-111 rail cars.

AFPM's beef centers around the fact that BNSF began imposing a $1,000 surcharge for companies carrying explosive Bakken fracked oil in DOT-111 cars, as opposed to “safer” CPC-1232 cars, at the beginning of 2015.

The Warren Buffett-owned BNSF did so, argues AFPM, illegally and without the authority of the federal government.

“This $1,000 surcharge on certain PHMSA-authorized rail cars breaches BNSF’s common carrier duty to ship hazardous materials under the auspices of PHMSA’s comprehensive regime governing hazardous materials transportation,” wrote AFPM's legal team, featuring a crew of Hogan Lovells attorneys. “Allowing railroads to penalize companies that ship crude oil in federally-authorized rail cars would circumvent PHMSA’s statutory and regulatory process for setting rail car standards for hazardous materials shipments.”

Upon a quick glance, it seems like a fairly straight-forward case of federal law and an intriguing example of an intra-industry dispute. But as recent history has proven, the devil is in the details.

Wed, 2015-02-25 04:58Sharon Kelly
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As Oil Prices Collapse, North Dakota Considers Weakening Standards on Radioactive Drilling Waste

As the collapse of oil prices threatens North Dakota's shale drilling rush, state regulators are considering a move they say could save the oil industry millions of dollars: weakening the state's laws on disposing of radioactive waste.

The move has been the subject of an intensive lobbying effort by drillers, who produce up to 75 tons per day of waste currently considered too hazardous to dispose of in the state.

For every truckload of that waste, drillers could save at least $10,000 in hauling costs, they argue. State regulators calculate that by raising the radioactive waste threshold ten-fold, the industry would shave off roughly $120 million in costs per year.

But many who live in the area say they fear the long-term consequences of loosened disposal rules combined with the state's poor track record on preventing illegal dumping.

“We don't want to have when this oil and coal is gone, to be nothing left here, a wasteland, and I'm afraid that's what might happen,” farmer Gene Wirtz of Underwood, ND told KNX News, a local TV station. “Any amount of radiation beyond what you're already getting is not a good thing.”

Environmental groups have also objected that the rule change would put private companies' profits before public health.

“The only reason we're doing this today is to cut the oil industry's costs,” Darrell Dorgan, spokesman for the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, which opposes the move, told Reuters.

Tue, 2015-02-17 15:55Guest
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VIDEO: Young Iowan Questions Rick Perry on Fracked Oil Pipeline Ties at Town Hall Meeting

By David Goodner

When 24-year old Iowa native Kevin Rutledge first heard that former Texas governor and potential Republican Party presidential candidate Rick Perry had been appointed to the Board of Directors of Energy Transfer Partners, which is attempting to build a pipeline carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale through his home state, he was hopping mad.

So on February 16, Rutledge decided to drive three hours from Des Moines to Sioux City, Iowa and ask Rick Perry face-to-face about his ties to the company during a town hall meeting at Morningside College.

Rutledge is from Ottumwa, Iowa and the proposed route of a new Dakota Access crude oil pipeline would cut right through the heart of the southeast Iowa county where he grew up, potentially impacting his home community with oil spills, polluted waterways, and damaged farmland.

Iowans and Americans are tired of not being listened to because we don’t have millions of dollars to influence politicians,” Rutledge told DeSmogBlog. “I heard about ties between Rick Perry, Iowa Governor [Terry] Branstad, and the Bakken oil pipeline and immediately knew this was an opportunity for me to ask him a question about it and bring this issue into light.”

Sun, 2015-02-08 19:41Guest
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GOP Activists: Rick Perry's Bakken Oil Pipeline Ties Could Cost Him Iowa Caucus Support

By David Goodner

Former Texas governor Rick Perry's recent appointment to the board of Energy Transfer Partners, a company attempting to build a Bakken oil pipeline through Iowa, could hurt him in the first-in-the-nation Republican Party caucus if he decides to run for president, according to a conservative Iowa Republican activist and a DeSmog analysis of the political landscape.

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) appointed Perry to its Board of Directors on February 3. ETP is a Texas-based company whose subsidiary corporation, Dakota Access, LLC, has petitioned the state of Iowa to build a pipeline carrying up to 575,000 barrels per day of oil obtained via North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) fields.  

The news about Perry's board appointment and its tie-in to the Iowa Caucus highlights the complicated terrain the issue will create for some Republicans in Iowa. It is a “political hot potato,” as DeSmog's Steve Horn wrote, and it is possible questions about the pipeline will arise in caucus politics leading up to 2016.  

Permitting plans in Iowa by Energy Transfer Partners and Dakota Access, LLC have sparked resistance from environmental activists and family farmers, the latter of whom often vote Republican, as well as from the libertarian wing of the GOP. Libertarian Republicans are often concerned about property rights and the potential abuse by government of eminent domain laws to confiscate private land for corporate profit.

“If Rick Perry is going to compete in Iowa this year, this could definitely be a big factor that could hurt him,” Jeff Shipley, a young Republican from Fairfield, Iowa, told DeSmogBlog. Shipley is a Republican activist, organizer, and former statehouse candidate for the Iowa GOP who has worked on presidential campaigns and with county and state party leaders for years. His home in Fairfield is located in Jefferson County, one of 18 Iowa counties sitting along the proposed pipeline route.

Jeff Shipley Iowa
Photo Credit: Shipley for Iowa

“This is a for-profit corporation that is going to try and use the force of government to steal farmers property,” Shipley told DeSmogBlog. “That runs contrary to typical conservative values.”

Wed, 2015-01-07 12:46Sharon Kelly
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EPA Sued Over Disclosure Rules for Toxic Pollution from Drilling and Fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been sued over toxic chemicals released into the air, water and land by the oil and gas industry, a coalition of nine environmental and open government groups announced today.

The extraction of oil and gas releases more toxic pollution than any other industry except for power plants, according to the EPA's own estimates, the coalition, which filed the lawsuit this morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, noted.

But the industry has thus far escaped federal rules that, for over the past two decades, have required other major polluters to disclose the type and amount of toxic chemicals they release or dispose. The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) is a federal pollution database, established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and can be used by first-responders in the event of a crisis as well as members of the general public.

People deserve to know what toxic chemicals are being used near their homes, schools and hospitals,” said Matthew McFeeley, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For too long, the oil and gas industry has been exempt from rules that require other industries to disclose the chemicals they are using, so communities and workers can better understand the risks. It’s high time for EPA to stop giving the oil and gas industry special treatment.”

Roughly one in four Americans live within a mile of an oil or gas well, making the air emissions from the industry a matter of local concern to a fast-growing number of families.

Mon, 2014-12-15 06:00Justin Mikulka
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Calls to Ban Bomb Trains Ramp Up While Communities Await New Regulations

ban bomb trains

Earthjustice has challenged the Department of Transportation’s denial of a petition by Sierra Club and Forest Ethics to ban the transportation of Bakken crude oil in DOT-111 tank cars.

Most of the explosive crude oil on U.S. rails is moving in tanker cars that are almost guaranteed to fail in an accident,” explained Patti Goldman of Earthjustice.

The risks are too great to keep shipping explosive Bakken crude in defective DOT-111s. The National Transportation Safety Board called them unsafe two decades ago, and by the Department of Transportation’s own estimates, the U.S. could see 15 rail accidents every year involving these cars until we get them off the tracks.” 

At the same time Earthjustice was bringing this challenge, the Canadian government was announcing that it will ban 3,000 of the riskiest DOT-111s from carrying materials like Bakken crude.

Sun, 2014-11-23 11:57Mike Gaworecki
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Monster Wells: Hundreds Of Fracking Wells Using 10-25 Million Gallons of Water Each

While the oil and gas industry likes to claim that fracking is not an especially water intensive process, a new report has found that there are more than 250 wells across the country that each require anywhere from 10 to 25 million gallons of water.

The American Petroleum Institute suggests that the typical fracked well uses “the equivalent of the volume of three to six Olympic sized swimming pools,” which works out to 2-4 million gallons of water.

But using data reported by the industry itself and available on the FracFocus.org website, Environmental Working Group has determined that there are at least 261 wells in eight states that used an average of 12.7 million gallons of water, adding up to a total of 3.3 billion gallons, between 2010 and 2013. Fourteen wells used over 20 million gallons each in that time period (see chart below).

According to EWG, some two-thirds of these water-hogging wells are in drought-stricken areas. Many parts of Texas, for instance, are suffering through a severe and prolonged drought, yet the Lone Star State has by far the most of what EWG calls “monster wells” with 149. And 137 of those were found to be in abnormally dry to exceptional drought areas.

Texas also has the dubious distinction of having the most wells using fresh water in the fracking process. In 2011 alone, more than 21 billion gallons of fresh water were used for fracking Texas wells. Increased pumping by companies seeking to extract the oil and gas in the Eagle Ford shale formation, meanwhile, has been cited as a major cause of the state’s rapidly declining groundwater levels.

Wed, 2014-11-05 13:50Mike Gaworecki
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Voters Ban Fracking In Texas, California, And Ohio

Yesterday's elections sent several more climate deniers to a dirty energy money-rich Congress, where they're already sharpening their knives and preparing to cut the centerpiece of President Obama's climate agenda, the EPA's Clean Power Plan, to shreds.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, summed it up succinctly: “With a tremendous amount of spending, the Koch Brothers have literally purchased the best Congress they could buy. It is now up to President Obama to pursue aggressive executive action on our pressing environmental issues, including climate change and clean water protections.”

But it was not all bad news for the climate yesterday, because many communities are not content to wait on the President to take action: Citizen-led initiatives to ban fracking won big in California, Ohio, and Texas.

The biggest of these victories was undoubtedly won in Denton, TX. A small city northwest of Dallas, Denton already has 275 fracked wells. Locals' concerns about fracking's impact on health and the environment led to a landslide 59% to 41% win for the measure, which bans fracking within city limits.

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