unconventional oil

Mon, 2014-07-07 13:39Steve Horn
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Industry Data Show Oil-By-Rail in North America at Record Levels

On July 3, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) released June 2014 data showing oil-by-rail and petroleum products at-large are moving at record levels throughout North America

The release of the data comes on the heels of the ongoing oil-by-rail nationwide week of action launched by environmental groups.

For the 26th week of 2014 (the half year point) in the U.S., 18.5% more tank cars were on the tracks carrying petroleum and/or petroleum products than last year, a total of 15,894 cars.

Examined on a year-to-date basis, 7.0% more of those same tank cars were on the tracks in the U.S. this year than last, totaling 380,961 cars to date.

Table Credit: Association of American Railroads 

Across the border in Canada, the same trend lines exist: for the 26th week of 2014, 6.9% more cars moved petroleum and/or petroleum products by rail than in the 26th week of 2013.

Looked at in terms of year-to-date compared to 2013, that totals a 7.7% increase in tank cars moving the commodity by rail. 

Table Credit: Association of American Railroads

Bomb trains,” as some critics call them, move oil obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin to terminals, holding facilities and markets both in the U.S. and Canada.

Hence the upsurge in unit cars carrying petroleum and/or petroleum products both north and south of the border.

Looked at through the lens of North America, 14.6% more tank cars carried petroleum and/or petroleum products during the 26th week of 2014 compared to the same time in 2013.

And 7.0% more of those tank cars have moved petroleum and/or petroleum products to market so far this year as compared to last year. 

Table Credit: Association of American Railroads

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

Tue, 2014-07-01 09:17Steve Horn
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Meme with Wings: Are Western Anti-Fracking Activists Funded by Putin's Russia?

At a June 19 speaking event at London's Chatham House, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen claimed the Russian government is covertly working to discredit hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the west from afar.

“I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organisations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas,” said Rasmussen, the former Prime Minister of Denmark.

Rasmussen's comments were relayed to the press by someone in attendance who apparently broke the “Chatham House Rule” by telling outsiders about the content of a Chatham House meeting.


Anders Fog Rasmussen; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But Rasmussen left out some key context from his presentation, which he said “is my interpretation” and did not further elaborate on his “disinformation operations” comments.   

That is, while powerful actors have claimed on multiple occasions that western-based anti-fracking activists are funded by the Kremlin, no one has ever documented such a relationship in the form of a money paper trail.

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.

Fri, 2014-06-20 10:25Steve Horn
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Heather Zichal, Former Obama Energy Aide, Named to Board of Fracked Gas Exports Giant Cheniere

Heather Zichal, former Obama White House Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, may soon walk out of the government-industry revolving door to become a member of the board of directors for fracked gas exports giant Cheniere, who nominated her to serve on the board. 

The announcement, made through Cheniere's U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Form 8-K and its Schedule 14A, comes just as a major class-action lawsuit was filed against the board of the company by stockholders.

In reaction to the lawsuit, Cheniere has delayed its annual meeting. At that meeting, the company's stockholders will vote on the Zichal nomination.

The class-action lawsuit was filed by plaintiff and stockholder James B. Jones, who alleges the board gave stock awards to CEO Charif Souki in defiance of both a stockholders' vote and the company's by-laws. 

Souki — a central character in Gregory Zuckerman's book “The Frackers“ — became the highest paid CEO in the U.S. as a result of the maneuver, raking in $142 million in 2013, $133 million of which came from stock awards.

Cheniere CEO Charif Souki; Photo Credit: Getty Images

Zichal was nominated to join Cheniere's audit committee of the board, and will be paid $180,000 per year for the gig if elected.

Among the audit committee duties: “Prepare and review the audit committee report for inclusion in the proxy statement for the company's annual meeting of stockholders,” which is now set for September 11 after the push-back following the filing of the stockholder class-action lawsuit.

“The audit committee’s responsibility is oversight, and it recognizes that the company’s management is responsible for preparing the company’s financial statements and complying with applicable laws and regulations,” Cheniere's audit committee charter further explains.

Wed, 2014-06-18 07:06Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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White House Meeting Logs: Big Rail Lobbying Against "Bomb Train" Regulations It Publicly Touts

Lynchburg, Virginia Oil Train Explosion

The Obama White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has held the majority of its meetings on the proposed federal oil-by-rail safety regulations with oil and gas industry lobbyists and representatives.

But OIRA meeting logs reviewed by DeSmogBlog reveal that on June 10, the American Association of Railroads (AAR) and many of its dues-paying members also had a chance to convene with OIRA

Big Rail has talked a big game to the public about its desire for increased safety measures for its trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale. What happens behind closed doors, the meeting logs show, tells another story. 

At the June 12-13 Railway Age Oil-by-Rail Conference, just two days after rail industry representatives met with OIRA, American Association of Railroads President Edward Hamberg, former assistant secretary for governmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), made the case for safety. 

“Railroads believe that federal tank car standards should be raised to ensure crude oil and other flammable liquids are moving in the safest car possible based on the product they are moving,” said Hamberg.

The industry also wants the existing crude oil fleet upgraded through retrofits or older cars to be phased out as quickly as possible.”

Yet despite public declarations along these lines, proactive safety measures were off the table for all four of Big Rail's presentations to OIRA.  

Though private discussions, the documents made public from the meeting show one consistent message from the rail industry: safety costs big bucks. And these are bucks industry is going to fight against having to spend.

Sun, 2014-06-15 07:00Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Meeting Logs: Obama White House Quietly Coddling Big Oil on “Bomb Trains” Regulations

When Richard Revesz, Dean Emeritus of New York University Law School, introduced Howard Shelanski at his only public appearance so far during his tenure as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Revesz described Shelanski as, “from our perspective, close to the most important official in the federal government.”

OIRA has recently reared its head in a big way because it is currently reviewing the newly-proposed oil-by-rail safety regulations rolled out by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).   

During his presentation at NYU, Shelanski spoke at length about how OIRA must use “cost-benefit analysis” with regards to regulations, stating, “Cost-benefit analysis is an essential tool for regulatory policy.”

But during his confirmation hearings, Shelanski made sure to state his position on how cost-benefit analysis should be used in practice. Shelanski let corporate interests know he was well aware of their position on the cost of regulations and what they stood to lose from stringent regulations. 

Regulatory objectives should be achieved at no higher cost than is absolutely necessary,” Shelanski said at the hearing.

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.  

Tue, 2014-06-03 18:00Steve Horn
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Days Before Obama Announced CO2 Rule, Exxon Awarded Gulf of Mexico Oil Leases

On Friday May 30, just a few days before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced details of its carbon rule proposal, the Obama Administration awarded offshore oil leases to ExxonMobil in an area of the Gulf of Mexico potentially containing over 172 million barrels of oil.

The U.S. Department of Interior's (DOI) Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) proclaimed in a May 30 press release that the ExxonMobil offshore oil lease is part of “President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy to continue to expand safe and responsible domestic energy production.” 

Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell formerly worked as a petroleum engineer for Mobil, purchased as a wholly-owned subsidiary by Exxon in 1998.

Dubbed a “Private Empire” by investigative reporter Steve Coll, ExxonMobil will now have access to oil and gas in the Alaminos Canyon Area, located 170 miles east of Port Isabel, Texas. Port Isabel borders spring break and tourist hot spot South Padre Island.


Map Credit: U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

ExxonMobil originally won the three leases at the Western Planning Area Sale 233, held on March 19. BOEM records show ExxonMobil was the only company to participate in the bid and paid over $21.3 million.

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.

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