Oil Makes Things Possible

Cold days are good for reading and writing, and I’ve been reading stuff written by some of my old friends—four of them, to be exact—as they hunker down inside their warm houses and offices waiting for above-zero days. Four thoughtful men, and they’re thinking about the future of our state, and writing about it from informed positions, since they’ve all been part of our past and our present. And interestingly, they’re all thinking about it in the context of our present-day oil boom, and all the things—good and bad—that have come with it.

Lloyd Omdahl, our former Lieutenant Governor, who still writes one of the best weekly columns in the state, and who is celebrating his 82nd birthday today (Happy Birthday, Lloyd), began his column this week with this:

“Economists at North Dakota State University have calculated the annual economic impact of the Bakken Field development and came up with $13 billion for 2009 – and a lot of growth has occurred since then. For a people used to dealing in thousands, and sometimes millions, talk about billions is impressive.”

Impressive indeed, and that new-found wealth, and what we should do with it as we head into the year in which we are going to celebrate 125 years of statehood, has gotten a couple of my other friends writing this week.

“This is North Dakota’s moment,” wrote Mike Jacobs in the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial Saturday morning. “Put as plainly as possible: Oil makes things possible. With revenue from oil, North Dakota can build the institutions and the infrastructure that will carry the state forward with and then past the age of oil.”

“Oil makes things possible.” Mike and I first heard that phrase more than twenty years ago from a Bad Lands rancher, in response to our question about why a stretch of gravel road was paved over in front of a ranch we were driving by. Oil money from a well drilled on the edge of a pasture during our first oil boom, back in the1970’s, let that rancher keep the dust down from passing traffic on dry, windy North Dakota days. Oil money made that paved road possible.

The possibilities are much bigger now, although certainly paving roads is still one of them—just longer stretches of them, in much busier places than Bad Lands ranching country.

Writing about plans for the state’s Quasquicentennial (get used to that word—you’re going to hear it a bunch this year—it’s what a 125-year anniversary is called), which kicks off Monday with a press conference in Bismarck, Mike wrote: “We’ll have to wait to see what the state’s historians and political leaders have in mind. Much emphasis will be on the past, of course. That’s the nature of anniversary celebrations. But the future can’t be ignored. There needs to be a discussion about how to spend the Bakken wealth, for example, so that prosperity is shared at home rather than exported elsewhere.”

How to spend the Bakken wealth. Mike is right. Those six words ought to dominate the thoughtful discussion in North Dakota this year. To be sure, we’ve started on it. We’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure to try to keep up with the demand this unprecedented growth in North Dakota has precipitated. In Mike’s back yard, we’re building a new medical school at UND. In my front yard, we’re about to unveil our new $50 million Heritage Center addition. Dickinson State University is going to build a $15 million Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, most of it with state funds. A new Outdoor Heritage Fund which, although drastically underfunded, is supposed to help us build new parks, protect wildlife and enhance our outdoor quality of life, will make its first round of grants this week.

Clay Jenkinson echoed some of the same themes in his thoughtful column in Sunday’s Bismarck Tribune. “We have more money in our state coffers than we know what to do with. Our public institutions are more generously funded than ever before in our history. After many decades of barely getting by, North Dakota suddenly has enough money to fund a wide range of desirable initiatives, with money to spare.”

Higher education, Clay argues, ought to be a top priority as we plan for our future in this Quasquicentennial year. On the surface, it’s not as sexy as many other things we North Dakotans could put on our “bucket list” for the state, but, Clay wrote,  “This is the time to redouble our efforts to create the best-educated citizens of America–in faraway North Dakota, seemingly so distant from MIT, Yale, and Cal Tech. We should do this here in North Dakota because for the first time we can really afford it, and because every study indicates that the twenty-first century is going to belong to the societies that invest deeply in education at every level. If we invest the windfall wisely, we could become one of the most attractive places to live in America by 2050, and we could overcome the 20th century ‘problem of North Dakota,’ that there is not enough within our borders to convince our children to make their lives here, not enough to lure new families who had the misfortune to be born elsewhere.”

Clay’s right, of course. We have enough money to build the best higher education system in America, and still have plenty left over for almost anything else we could want. A few years back, Clay and I, and a couple others, were having supper with the president of one of our North Dakota universities, and the conversation got a little high-minded, as it often can do when you put Clay and a university president together, and I proposed that one way we could make that happen would be to announce that we were immediately going to double the salaries of every college professor in North Dakota, and at the same time, open up every position on every campus, and let current faculty compete for those positions at double their present salary. We wondered if we could attract the top professors in America to North Dakota, and with them, the top students in America, seeking the best affordable education available at public institutions in our country. And we also wondered how many of the current faculty members at North Dakota universities would support such a program. We didn’t answer those questions, but this might just be the time to open the financial faucets of our higher education system and see what happens.

Beyond that, though, we need to use this year, as both Mike and Clay argue, to figure out a way to deal not just with the new-found wealth, but with the problems associated with this boom. Clay again: “The best way to celebrate our birthday would be to create a new North Dakota social contract, a twenty-first century mission statement, so that we can direct the economic miracle that has come to North Dakota rather than be, in the end, merely overwhelmed and damaged by it.”

Direct the economic miracle. Those are the four most important words Clay wrote. Now that we mostly understand what is happening to us, after sitting back and just letting it happen for the last few years, probably  the most important thing we could do now is to take charge, to thank the oil industry and this great American capitalistic system that has let this happen here, and say “We are happy you are here, and we are happy you are bringing us this great wealth, but we’d like to remind you that we are North Dakotans, and we are in charge here, and here are the new rules by which we’re all going to play.

In Lloyd Omdahl’s words: “Our euphoric daze should not blind us to the reality of oil development. The oil industry is not in North Dakota because it saw a state in need of an economic boost. Neither is it here because our tax revenue has always been short. And it is not here to provide new jobs and more population for a sparsely-populated semi-arid west. The oil industry is here because it can make billions of dollars mining our resources. And let us not forget that while North Dakota is prospering from the oil development, the oil industry is profiting even more. When oil exploration and production ceases to be profitable, the oil industry will pack up and leave us with the consequences, whatever they may be.”

We saw one of those consequences just in the past week. The vision of the huge fireballs erupting over the countryside on the outskirts of Casselton brought home to us that we are not in charge here right now. Frankly, no one’s in charge. The Bakken Boom has taken on a life of its own, a bigger, more dramatic life than we’ve ever seen here on the northern prairie. That’s dangerous. We are not a people accustomed to, or comfortable with, chaos, yet chaos rules the day in North Dakota right now.

The derailment and explosion in North Dakota brought us the realization that we are living dangerously by shipping most of our oil by rail in unsafe tanker cars. During this chaotic period the state granted drilling permits as fast as we could, to keep the industry happy, and when we got to the point we were producing more oil than we could ship by truck or pipeline, well, glory be, the railroads stepped up to the plate and said “Give it to us. We’ll haul it.” Our officials breathed a deep sigh of relief and turned them loose. All kinds of rules were bent to accommodate the oil companies and the railroads, but then there were three really big, fiery crashes. And now we’ve realized things are out of control.

But what can be done? If the government moves to pull the unsafe cars hauling unsafe products out of service, the oil doesn’t move. That’s unacceptable. The oil has to move, or the boom stops.

One solution came from my old friend Fred Schumacher, a thoughtful expatriate who has been watching all this happen from a distance. Fred suggested a way to begin to take control: Build our own fleet of oil tank cars. As I wrote here the other day, the one thing private industry has refused to do is upgrade their tanker cars to make them safe. It would be costly and it would take time, and the oil doesn’t have time—it is coming out of the ground and needs to be moved. One solution is to undertake a “war effort” like we did at the beginning of WWII, this time to build safe oil tank cars. I suppose a massive effort, with enough steel and enough money, could crank the cars out pretty fast. Fred says we have the money, and there is precedent.

When the province of Alberta, Canada, realized it wasn’t able to move all of its grain to market a number of years ago, it used oil tax money from its Heritage Fund (sound familiar?) to build its own fleet of covered hopper cars to move the grain. It loaded those hopper cars full, and the railroad just pulled in with a couple of locomotives, hooked up, and took the grain where it needed to go, mostly coastal markets.

“Alberta conservatives (who ran the provincial government at the time) weren’t stupid, and they realized that oil was a one-time harvest and taxes had to be collected to be set aside for the future. Alberta’s Heritage Fund grain hopper cars are a model for what North Dakota could do,” Fred wrote to me this week. “We need a special session of the Legislature. They should look at what the Alberta Tories did to institute their Heritage Fund and use that money to fund mitigation for oil development and double-wall tanker cars to lease to the railroads as Alberta did with grain hopper cars.” Take a look at the hopper cars here.

Well, Fred’s right. We could do that. There’s precedent here. We have a state-owned bank, and a state-owned mill and elevator, and there’s no reason we could not react very quickly to build a fleet of safe oil tankers and require that railroads use them to move oil through our state. Or at least threaten to do that. That might get the private sector to move forward with a massive effort to build safe oil tanker cars. (Although secretly, I’d like the state to do it instead.)

Another big idea. I hope our leaders will follow the advice of Lloyd and Mike and Clay and Fred, big thinkers, all of them. We’ve got problems to solve. We’ve got the money to solve them. And we’ve got the raison d’etre—a Quasquicentennial—to do it.  Let’s use this year to take charge of our future.

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Another Day, Another Fireball: Surprise–Heeeeeere’s Warren Buffett!

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to spend an hour with Professor Debra Dragseth’s Business Ethics class at Dickinson State University. It was their last class of the semester, just two days prior to their final exam. The students were attentive and polite, but mostly unenthusiastic, as students will be in the waning days of a semester.

The subject of my “lecture” was the ethics, or lack of them, of the oil industry in North Dakota. I told them, among other things, what I had learned about the transport of oil by rail out of North Dakota, mostly that the oil tank cars carrying the oil were old and vulnerable to rupture in a derailment, with the result of those ruptures being the gigantic explosions and fires like the one that killed 47 people in Quebec and the one that polluted a wetland in Alabama last summer. I told them that the greed of the oil companies was evident in their refusal to upgrade their car fleet or retrofit the existing cars to make them safer, and that we are going to see more of these incidents of the magnitude of the Quebec disaster.  Those are the kind of incidents that make national news, and the news reports always say “the cars were carrying oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota,” continuing to give North Dakota a black eye.

Well, now there’s a third, and it happened right here in North Dakota. A train carrying a hundred or so tankers of oil almost made it out of the state, but just 20 or so miles before it crossed the Red River into Minnesota, it derailed and exploded just outside Casselton, sending up spectacular towering fireballs and huge dense black smoke clouds that caused the evacuation of the town that’s home to Governor Jack Dalrymple and is the former home of Governor George Sinner. (If you haven’t seen the fireball video yet, take a look here. I’ll guarantee you’ve never seen anything like this in your life.)

Those three made the national news—yesterday’s blaze at Casselton was on the NBC Nightly News within just a few hours of when it happened—but there were more than seven dozen rail accidents involving crude oil in the U.S. and Canada in 2012, most of which got only local notice, and the 2013 tally hasn’t been added up yet, but you could probably make a little money betting it was higher than in 2012.

The problem is not just confined to railroads. Because of the massive expansion of the oil industry in the Bakken Oil Field of North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan, and the tar sands development in Alberta, the movement of crude oil from inland well sites to coastal refineries has put incredible pressure on railroads and pipeline companies. Safety practices so studiously observed at well sites are seemingly absent from transportation facilities, both railroads and pipelines. Here’s a brief story from Grist.org about two incidents you probably didn’t read about:

Last Wednesday, (March 27, 2013) a southbound train carrying Canadian oil derailed in Minnesota, spilling about 15,000 gallons of tar-sands crude . . . Two days later, (March 29, 2013) an ExxonMobil pipeline carrying tar-sands oil burst beneath a suburban neighborhood in Arkansas. The exact size of the spill hasn’t yet been determined, but ExxonMobil says it’s preparing to be able to clean up 420,000 gallons, though it doesn’t believe the spill is that large. The oil flooded yards and streets and led to the evacuation of 22 homes in  Mayflower, a small community about 20 miles northwest of Little Rock. (You can see some pretty amazing video here.)

And then, of course, there was the massive 865,000 gallon leak in a Tesoro pipeline near Tioga, ND, a few months ago.

Who’s to blame, and what can we do about it? Those are the two questions that must be answered right now. The railroad explosions were all the result of derailments of trains carrying crude oil. One of the biggest problems is that many of the cars used to transport the oil—those greasy, grimy black cylindrical tankers you see passing through your home town in 120 car unit trains if you live along the BNSF’s main line, which parallels Interstate 94 through North Dakota—are not designed to carry flammable Bakken crude oil. They are not safe. Critics point out that old tank cars can puncture easily, and that trains carrying heavy oil loads can wear down railroad tracks, according to a report in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The result: derailments and explosions.

That paper is doing a tremendous job of investigating the oil transport industry. Excerpt from a recent story:

“In the rush to capitalize on one of the world’s biggest oil booms, questions about the potential hazards of shipping Bakken crude by rail took a back seat. When railways were chosen to supplement a pipeline shortage, the modern boom quickly stretched the limits of a century-old transportation network and regulatory system designed for safer goods such as grain and lumber.

Much of the oil moved around the U.S. and Canada is shipped via an aging tanker model known as the DOT-111. These cars, the subject of repeated warnings from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, have a thin metal skin that’s easily punctured in the event of a derailment.”

The story pointed out there are about 92,000 of the old DOT-111 tank cars and of these, about 78,000 cars should be retrofitted to be made safer or phased out, according to a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry group whose members include the BNSF and the Canadian Pacific, the two major shippers whose rail lines run through North Dakota.

The changes the industry wants, which are meant to prevent explosions like we saw in Casselton Monday, should include a steel jacket, thermal protection and pressure relief valves. An AAR spokesman said recently even cars built since October 2011, when the rail industry brought in its latest design standards (about 14,000 of them are being used right now), will need modifications.

“It’s time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids, particularly considering the recent increase in crude oil traffic,” said AAR President Edward Hamberger, according to the Globe and Mail: “U.S. and Canadian railway laws require shippers, railways and even buyers to ensure hazardous goods such as petroleum are properly classified so they are carried in sufficiently sturdy cars. But interviews with rail officials and exclusive access granted to a Globe reporter to the North Dakota crude facility that loaded the Lac-Mégantic train indicate that the makeup and flammability of Bakken oil is not always tested.(emphasis added to point out a black eye to North Dakota)

So who’s responsible for making sure the oil going into these cars is tested? Well, likely the people who own the tanker cars. The thing is, the railroads don’t own the cars. Who does? The Globe and Mail:

Railways themselves don’t own the tanker cars, they just hitch their locomotives to a train of leased cars and away they go. The shale oil boom has been great for third-party vendors such as Procor Ltd. in Canada and Union Tank Car in the U.S. As an aside, both outfits are owned by Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s holding company, which is seeing big bets on rail pay off, such as buying Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010.”

Well now. Ain’t that something? Warren Buffet (no relation, by the way, to Jimmy Buffett, mayor of Margaritaville) owns the railroad running through North Dakota. But his railroad doesn’t own the tank cars. Instead, another company owned by Buffett owns them. But before you blame Buffett for any explosions, remember that he leases them to the oil companies who own the oil. It’s the oil companies seeking to maximize every penny of profit, who certify, before the train leaves the transloading facility in North Dakota, that the product inside is safe for transport in those old cars.

Still, it is Buffet who owns those old cars (he can’t be happy when he sees them burning up, and making a mess of the tracks he owns), which really should be scrapped or retrofitted—this boom is not going away any time soon, and the cars are going to be needed for a good many years. Problem is, the cost of bringing those cars up to the standards required in new cars, including steel jackets and pressure relief, could exceed $40,000 per car, according to the Rail Supply Institute. The Globe and Mail reports that at that rate, just the cost of refitting the 78,000 old cars would top $3-billion, although some of those old cars will be retired if the AAR proposals are taken up.

Well, hell, just $3 billion? Old Warren’s got that much, and more. And all he’d have to do to recover it is up the price of leasing the cars to the oil companies.

But the problem there, I’d guess, is the pressure on the railroads and Warren to keep those cars in service just the way they are, safety be damned. Because the state of North Dakota just keeps signing drilling permits as fast as Lynn Helms can replace the ink cartridges in his pen.

Well, can’t government regulatory agencies do something about this? Uh huh. They could. If they wanted to. According to a report I came across earlier, the source of which I can’t find right now, the “U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has issued safety guidelines on the widely used, cylindrical tank cars known as DOT-111s, including a recommendation that all tank cars used to carry ethanol and crude oil be reinforced to make them more resistant to punctures if trains derail. The new guidelines, put forward in March 2012 but which have not yet been adopted by the Department of Transportation agency that oversees the sector, stem from a deadly ethanol train derailment and explosion in Illinois in 2009.” (emphasis added as a hint to the DOT that it is time to take some action)

What’s become obvious is that oil companies will take advantage of any regulatory lapse they can find. In the Quebec incident, for example, the oil in the tank cars was mislabeled, certified as safe for transport in those old cars. Certified by the oil industry person who loaded them in New Town, North Dakota. 47 people are dead. That person ought to go to the pokey. Meanwhile, what started out as an incredible success story about North Dakota is turning into a public relations nightmare, the most recent bad dream being Monday’s fiery crash. Here’s what one Toronto newspaper story said recently:

As oil output soared, so did hazards. Workplace accidents increased so dramatically that North Dakota now has the highest rate of job fatalities in the U.S. – 12.4 per 100,000 workers, or four times the national rate. Gas pipelines are in such short supply that 30 per cent of natural gas isn’t properly harvested and is instead burned off. From satellite cameras, North Dakota looks like a birthday cake with thousands of glowing candles . . . What should have been an economic miracle for North Dakota has instead been a logistical nightmare. Since 2009, the state has been producing oil faster than it can be shipped to refineries. The bottleneck is so bad that market prices for Bakken crude are at times heavily discounted, falling as much as 28 per cent below benchmark prices in early 2012. Existing pipelines winding through the state were already operating at full capacity. As a result, more than a third of the state’s production was being shipped out on trucks by 2007, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. The trucking frenzy was chewing up roads, driving accident rates to record highs and infuriating local residents. What happened next was the largest surge ever in rail shipments of hazardous goods. By last month, more than 400,000 tank cars were carrying crude oil through Canadian and U.S. towns and cities. In 2009, the number was 8,000.”

So, back to my original questions: Who’s to blame, and what can be done about it?

After reading this, you can form your own conclusions about who’s to blame. As for what can be done about it, well, maybe it’s time to just slow the fuck down.

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A Pair of Christmas Poems

Here are a pair of Christmas poems from North Dakota Poet Laureate James W. Foley. Billy Peeble’s Christmas is probably the saddest and happiest and best Christmas poem ever.

 

A Child’s Christmas Prayer

By James W. Foley

Dear Lord, be good to Santa Claus,

He’s been so good to me;

I never told him so because

He is so hard to see.

He must love little children so

To come through snow and storm;

Please care for him when cold winds blow

And keep him nice and warm

 

Dear Lord, be good to him and good

To Mary Christmas too.

I’d like to tell them if I could,

The things I’m telling you,

They’ve both been very good to me,

And everywhere they go

They make us glad;–no wonder we

All learn to love them so.

 

Please have him button up his coat

So it will keep him warm;

And wear a scarf about his throat

If it should start to storm.

And when the night is dark, please lend

Him light if stars are dim,

Or maybe sometimes you could send

An angel down with him.

 

Please keep his heart so good and kind

That he will always smile;

And tell him maybe we will find

And thank him after while.

Please keep him safe from harm and keep

Quite near and guard him when

He’s tired and lays down to sleep

Dear Lord, please do! Amen.

 

BILLY PEEBLE’S CHRISTMAS

By James W. Foley

(From The Book of Boys and Girls)

Billy Peeble he ain’t got no parents—never had none ‘cause

When he was borned he was an orfunt; an’ he said ‘at Santa Claus

Never didn’t leave him nothin’, ‘cause he was a county charge

An’ the overseer told him that his fambly was too large

To remember orfunt children; so I ast Ma couldn’t we

Have Bill Peeble up to our house, so’s to see our Christmas tree.

An she ast me if he’s dirty; an’ I said I guessed he was,

But I didn’t think it makes no difference with Santa Claus.

 

My his clo’es was awful ragged! Ma, she put him in a tub

An’ she poured it full of water, an’ she gave him such a scrub

‘At he ‘ist sit there an’ shivered; and he tol’ me afterwurds

‘At he never washed all over out to Overseer Bird’s!

‘An she burned his ragged trousies an’ she gave him some of mine;

My! She rubbed him an’ she scrubbed him till she almost made him shine,

Nen he ‘ist looked all around him like he’s scairt for quite a w’ile

An’ even when Ma’d pat his head he wouldn’t hardly smile.

 

“En after w’ile Ma took some flour-sacks an’ ‘en she laid

“Em right down at the fireplace, ‘ist ‘cause she is afraid

Santa Claus’ll soil the carpet when he comes down there, you know

An’ Billy Peeble watcher her, an’ his eyes stuck out—‘ist so!

“En Ma said ‘at in the mornin’ if we’d look down on the sacks

‘At they’d be ‘ist full of soot where Santa Claus had made his tracks;

Billy Peeble stood there lookin’! An’ he told me afterwurds

He was scairt he’d wake up an’ be back at Overseer Bird’s.

 

Well, ‘en she hung our stockin’s up and after w’ile she said:

“Now you and’ Billy Peeble better get right off to bed,

An’ if you hear a noise tonight, don’t you boys make a sound,

‘Cause Santa Claus don’t never come with little boys around!”

So me an’ Billy went to bed, and Billy Peeble, he

Could hardly go to sleep at all—ist tossed an’ tossed. You see

We had such w’ite sheets on the bed an’ he said afterwurds

They never had no sheets at all at Overseer Bird’s.

 

So we ‘ist laid and talked an’ talked. An’ Billy ast me who

Was Santa Claus. An’I said I don’t know if it’s all true,

But people say he’s some old man who ‘ist loves little boys

An’ keeps a store at the North Pole with heaps an’ heaps of toys

W’ich he brings down in a big sleigh, with reindeers for his steeds,

An’ comes right down the chimbly flue an’ leaves ‘ist what you needs.

My! He’s excited w’en I tell him that! An’ afterwurds

He said that they never had no toys at Overseer Bird’s.

 

I’m fallin’ pretty near asleep w’en Billy Peeble said:

“Sh-sh! What’s that noise?” An’ w’en he spoke I sat right up in bed

Till sure enough I heard it in the parlor down below,

An’ Billy Peeble, he set up an’ ‘en he said: “Let’s go!”

So we got up an’ sneaked down stairs, an’ both of us could see

‘At it was surely Santa Claus, ‘ist like Ma said he’d be;

But he must have heard us comin’ down, because he stopped an’ said:

“You, Henry Blake and William Peeble, go right back to bed!”

My goodness, we was awful scairt! An’ both of us was pale,

An’ Billy Peeble said upstairs: “My! Ain’t he ‘ist a whale?”

We didn’t hardly dare to talk and got back into bed

An’ Billy pulled the counterpane clear up above his head,

An’ in the mornin’ w’en we looked down on the flour-sacks,

W’y sure enough we saw the soot where he had made his tracks.

An’ Billy got a suit of clothes, a drum, an’ sled an’ books

Till he ‘ist never said a word, but my, how glad he looks!

 

An’ after w’ile it’s dinner time an Billy Peeble set

Right next to Pa, an’ my! how he ‘ist et an’ et an’ et!

Till he ‘ist puffed an’ had to leave his second piece of pie

Because he couldn’t eat no more, an’ after dinner, w’y

Ma dressed him up in his new clo’es, an Billy Peeble said

He’s sorry he’s an orfunt, an’ Ma Patted Billy’s head.

W’ich made him cry a little bit, an’ he said afterwurds

Nobody ever pats his head at Overseer Bird’s.

 

An’ all day long Pa looked at Ma, an’ Ma she looked at him,

Because Pa said ‘at Billy looked a little bit like Jim

‘At was my brother, but he died oncet, years ago,

An’ ‘at’s why Billy Peeble makes my mother like him so.

She says ‘at Santa brought him as a present, ‘ist instead

Of little Jim ‘at died oncet. So she ‘ist put him to bed

On Christmas Night an’ tucked him in an’ told me afterwurds

‘At he ain’t never going back to Overseer Bird’s.


							
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A List And a Process–Thank You Wayne Stenehjem

Well, the Attorney General did good.

At a meeting of the North Dakota Industrial Commission this morning—Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is one of three members, along with Jack Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring—our Attorney General revealed his plan for protection from oil development, or at least consideration of protection, for a list of what he termed “places of extraordinary significance.”

His list, far more extensive, I think, than most of the 50 or more concerned citizens who packed a Legislative hearing room expected to see:

a. Black Butte in Slope County;

b. Bullion Butte in Billings County;

c. Camel’s Hump Butte in Golden Valley County;

d. Columnar Junipers (Limber Pines) and Burning Coal Vein, formerly known as the Dakota National Forest, in northwest Slope County;

e. Confluence of Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers;

f. Elkhorn Ranch;

g. Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site, Wildlife Management Area;

h. Lake Sakakawea;

i. Little Missouri River;

j. Little Missouri River National Grasslands – Areas designated by the United States Forest Service as not administratively available for future leasing after July 31, 2002;

k. Little Missouri State Park;

l. Pretty Butte in Slope County;

m. Sentinel Butte in Golden Valley County;

n. Theodore Roosevelt National Park;

o. Tracy Mountain in Billings County;

p. West Twin Butte in Golden Valley County;

q. White Butte in Slope County; and

r. Wildlife Management Areas.

I have to admit that even I, who had proposed a list in a letter to him a few weeks ago and had written about it here, with little hope it would hold much sway, was surprised and pleased. I had proposed a few more general areas like National Historic Sites and Federal Wildlife refuges, but I’m guessing that the Attorney General felt that the oil industry would know better than to trifle with such places, and so he didn’t see a need to single them out.

The proposed plan—and I stress the word plan, since it has not yet been formally adopted—would create a buffer zone around those places of half a mile to two miles, depending on the area under consideration, inside which any application for an oil well permit must include an “impact mitigation plan.”

The details of what is to be included in the impact mitigation plan are spelled out in Stenehjem’s proposal:

a. Plans for and timing of reclamation of the well site to natural conditions, except for roads, equipment, and structures that are essential for operations.

b. Noise and traffic mitigation.

c. Efforts to protect the view shed in the sites listed under subsection 2.

d. Use of existing well sites and facilities.

e. The feasibility of constructing pipelines or utilizing other available means to avoid the flaring of gas and trucking of any fluid.

f. Estimated dates and time period for drilling and completion operations.

Generally, here’s how Stenehjem’s proposed administrative rule would work. The proposal directs Oil and Gas Division Director Lynn Helms to develop and maintain a database with the GPS coordinates or legal descriptions of the buffer zones for each location (there’s a list of the buffer zones for each location at the end of this post). Every single drilling permit, apparently, will be run through that database, and if there is a match—if an application is for a location in the database—the Oil and Gas Division must post a notice on its website about the application within 5 days. The public then has 10 days to submit comments on the application. In addition, the Division must send the application to an appropriate state or federal agency for “professional guidance” on how to deal with the application. If it’s in a buffer zone for a wildlife management area, for example, the ND Game and Fish Department will have a chance to weigh in on the application before it is approved.

Some other key provisions:

Under this proposal, when an oil company submits a drilling permit application, it must include the mitigation plan it has written for the site. So the oil industry is going to have to know, before it applies, whether or not each of their applications is in a buffer zone. The industry is going to have to use the database developed by the Oil and Gas Division to guide its siting of oil well pads. If the industry does not want to go to the trouble of establishing a mitigation plan, it will not submit applications for sites within those buffer zones. So that should help serve as a deterrent for encroachment on these special places, keeping oil wells well away from them.

The proposal does not, however, preclude drilling a well inside a buffer zone, or even inside a wildlife management area—it just says if the company is going to do that, they are going to have to do it in a way that is approved by, generally, the appropriate agencies of state and federal government. Those agencies are charged with protecting lands within their purview, and are going to be, I would think, generally reasonable to work with (given the current political climate in North Dakota), but careful in the protection of their resources.

The proposed rule still gives the Director of the Oil and Gas Division, Lynn Helms, the final say on approving a drilling permit application. Which gives us all pause. However, if he should approve any outrageous requests, public pressure will still be brought to bear on his bosses, the Industrial Commission, which has the ability to overrule him.

The proposal contains a whole list of “permit considerations” which are also listed at the end of this post, that directs the Oil and Gas Division to look at what is nearby a proposed well site, such as aquifers, lakes, floodplains and roads. It also proposes a list of stipulations which may be attached to any drilling permit, a list which is quite broad and gives the Division a lot of discretionary power in approving well sites, things like fencing, tree plantings, road placement and, importantly, “limiting flaring to completion or workover flowback periods.” Discretionary power they can choose to use or ignore. Believe me, there will be a lot of eyes on how the Division uses that power.

So, what happens now?  Well, at Stenehjem’s urging, in spite of some pushback from the other members of the Commission, there will be a special Industrial Commission meeting in January at which time the Commission can act on Stenehjem’s proposal—voting to adopt an official North Dakota Administrative Rule. If they choose to adopt it, they kick in a round of public comment sessions on the proposed new rule. Public hearings are held, testimony for and against the rule is taken. After that, then they vote to make it an enforceable Administrative Rule. But generally, that’s not quite the end. Usually, the rule then goes to the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee for final approval before it takes effect. And that process can take many months to complete.

But Stenehjem wants this to happen quickly (they’re approving 200-300 drilling permits a month right now, and none of them are subject to this process) so they’re going to have to scramble to get public hearings held, and comments compiled, and a final decision made in time for the March meeting of the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee. If they can’t do that, Stenehjem has the authority to declare an emergency and put the rule into effect without the Legislature, instead of waiting for the June meeting of the committee. The Commission could also begin implementing some provisions of this informally right away if they wanted to. For instance, they could begin work on the database, and they could begin flagging applications inside these proposed buffer zones for review by state agencies now.

The industry has already expressed some skepticism. Expect some more public opposition and private lobbying from Ron Ness of the Petroleum Council right away. Goehring, as well, seems unconvinced there’s a need for this (although Stenehjem was firm in his response to the Agriculture Commissioner that there are things in this proposal the Industrial Commission is not doing now, but should be), and Dalrymple, while saying the state has been doing an “outstanding job” of regulating the industry, conceded the need for a more formal process under the Commission’s rulemaking authority.

In the end, though, we’re going to have to re-learn to trust Lynn Helms and his staff. His credibility with pretty near everyone outside the industry who cares about North Dakota is pretty low. If this proposal becomes the law (administrative rules in North Dakota have the force of law) Helms is going to have to enforce it. Although his agency is the chief enforcement agency in the oil patch, it has served as more of a cheerleader than a watchdog so far in this oil boom. Stenehjem’s proposal begins a whole new ball game, one in which Helms is going to be a bit uncomfortable. He’s going to bear watching by citizens’ groups who have brought this process to the fore, captured Stenehjem’s (and now, it seems, maybe Dalrymple’s as well) attention, and led us to this point. Those groups include the Badlands Conservation Alliance, the Dakota Resource Council, The North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, The Wildlife Society, The Sierra Club,The Environmental Law and Policy Center and others. In the short term, at least, those groups are going to have to monitor this process to be sure it is carried out to the extent allowed in the new rules. There’s a lot of dedication among those folks, and I think they’re up to the task. The Attorney General did good. Now we have to stand beside him and make sure the job gets done.

Buffer Zones Proposal         

Any application for a permit within the areas or the buffer zone around the areas identified in subsection 2 received after May 1, 2014 shall include an impact mitigation plan signed by the applicant or its agent. The buffer zone for each site shall be measured as follows:

a. The buffer zone for Black Butte shall be two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte.

b. The buffer zone for Bullion Butte shall be measured two miles from the maximum elevation of the Butte.

c. The buffer zone for Camel’s Hump Butte shall be two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte.

d. The buffer zone for the Columnar Junipers (Limber Pines) and Burning Coal Vein shall be measured one mile from the exterior boundary of the former Dakota National Forest.

e. The buffer zone for the Confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers shall be measured two miles from the intersection of the centerline of the riverbeds as it is determined at the time of the application.

f. The buffer zone for the Elkhorn Ranch shall be measured two miles from the exterior boundary of the National Park and State Park sites.

g. The buffer zone for the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site, Wildlife Management Area shall be measured one mile from the exterior boundary of each site.

h. The buffer zone for Lake Sakakawea shall be one half mile from the shoreline at 1854’ msl elevation (i.e., the spillway elevation).

i. The buffer zone for the Little Missouri River shall be measured approximately one mile from the centerline of the riverbed as it is determined at the time of the application.

j. The buffer zone for the areas within the Little Missouri River National Grasslands that are designated by the United States Forest Service as not administratively available for future leasing after July 31, 2002, shall be the nearest section line or boundary of Forest Service property. .

k. The buffer zone for the Little Missouri State Park shall be measured one mile from the park’s exterior boundary.

l. The buffer zone for Pretty Butte shall be two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte.

m. The buffer zone for Sentinel Butte shall be two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte.

n. The buffer zone for each unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park shall be measured two miles from the park’s exterior boundaries.

o. The buffer zone for Tracy Mountain shall be two miles from the maximum elevation of the mountain.

p. The buffer zone for West Twin Butte shall be two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte.

q. The buffer zone for White Butte in Slope County shall be two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte.

r. The buffer zone for any Wildlife Management Area not located within any other buffer zone shall be measured one mile from the exterior boundary.

Permit Considerations Proposal

For all applications for a permit to drill, regardless of location, the director shall consider the proximity of the proposed location to the following:

a. A shallow glacial aquifer;

b. A lake (with a water surface of 640 acres or more);

c. Lake Sakakawea;

d. A wellhead protection area;

e. Near-surface coal, sand, or gravel deposit;

f. Unstable soils or areas with a high potential for soil instability;

g. A natural drainage;

h. A 100-year (or less) floodplain;

i. An occupied dwelling;

j. A military facility;

k. A plugged and/or abandoned well;

l. A planned bypass route that has been proposed in an approved ten-year, or less, county, state, or federal road master plan;

m. 33 feet of any section line which has not been closed or within 200 feet of the centerline of a state or federal highway;

n. A city’s extra-territorial boundary; and

o. A county, state, or federally designated historic site; a public recreation area; or a wildlife management area.

p. Any other areas or geographical formations the director deems appropriate.

Additional Stipulations Proposal

Because of the proximity of the location to any of these items, the director may attach additional stipulations to the permit deemed necessary, such as:

a. Closed mud system with no cuttings pit;

b. Impermeable liner underlying the entire site;

c. Casing cemented to ground level placed in the rat and mouse holes;

d. Prohibiting the drilling pit from being constructed with porous materials, i.e., sand, coal, gravel, or scoria;

e. Spill contingency plan and diking around the entire location;

f. Hydrogen sulfide contingency plan;

g. Fencing around the site;

h. Additional casing strings;

i. Additional precautions to avoid adverse effects to nearby well(s);

j. Locating production equipment further from occupied dwellings than the well head;

k. Requiring access from an off-spacing unit site;

l. Planting of trees to minimize visual impact;

m. Restrictions on access road location;

n. Limiting flaring to completion or work over flow back periods;

o. Restricting excavation during site construction;

p. Timing limits on construction, drilling and fracture stimulating operations; or

q. Any other provision deemed necessary.

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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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Time To Send Denbury Packing?

Salt water is in the news this week.

You read in the papers this morning that a company called Denbury Onshore, a subsidiary of Denbury Resources of Plano, Texas, which is in the oil business in the Bakken in both Montana and North Dakota, “released” about 700,000 gallons of salt water into Big Gumbo Creek in eastern Montana. “Released” is the North Dakota Health Department’s new term for “spill.” Big Gumbo Creek runs into the Little Missouri River after it crosses the North Dakota line into Bowman County. The Little Missouri is classified as a North Dakota State Scenic River, and it eventually flows into Lake Sakakawea north of Killdeer. For now, everyone is saying they got the water stopped before it got to the Little Mo. I’m going to drive down there as soon as I can to take a look for myself.

At the same time salt water was flowing down Big Gumbo Creek, a judge in Dickinson was signing a court order demanding that a company named Halek Operating ND, LLC, pay a fine of $1.5 million to the state of North Dakota for illegally pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of salt water down a well in Stark County, south of Dickinson. I’ve written about Halek before. A number of times. Almost more times than I can count. I am an English major, after all.

As I’ve said before, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, with great fanfare, stating “this is the most egregious violations ever pursued by the Commission,” slapped a fine of $1.5 million on the company last summer. Gave them 30 days to pay. They didn’t pay. The Industrial Commission went to court, and last Friday got a court order from Judge Dann Greenwood out in Dickinson to be served on them, to make them pay.  That’s where it stands right now. No check in the mail yet.

People who understand this situation better than I do tell me there isn’t going to be a check. They say this was a great headline-making story, making the Commission look really tough on a bad operator, but that Commission members knew all along they were never going to collect this fine. Because there isn’t anything there to collect. By now, what my friends in the know tell me, there are virtually no assets left in the Halek Operating ND LLC account, except maybe an abandoned well full of salt water. And there may not even be that. Halek’s owner, Jason Halek, says he sold the well to another company during the time the illegal dumping was going on. Presumably, Jason Halek didn’t leave a lot of cash sitting in a bank account under the LLC’s name, but that is what the Industrial commission has to try to find out right now. Because the Industrial Commission levied the fine against the LLC, not Jason Halek personally, so if there are no assets left in the LLC, then the Industrial Commission is SOL.

I’m not a lawyer, but it seems that perhaps, with the knowledge that there might not be any assets in the LLC, the Commission might have tried to “pierce the corporate veil,” in legal terms, and go after Jason Halek personally.  But even that might not have done any good, since Jason Halek is on the hook for about $26 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission for a big securities fraud case a couple years ago. In that case, the SEC was able to get around the corporate veil of Halek Operating LLC and get to Jason Halek personally. The case is on appeal. But if the North Dakota Industrial Commission had gone after Jason Halek personally, at least they’d be in line, if there is any money anywhere to be doled out.

The headlines were very big in the state’s newspapers when Dalrymple and Company, LLC (Liability Limiting Commission), slapped the $1.5 million fine on Halek. I hope they are just as big when they report it is uncollectable.

But meanwhile, back at Big Gumbo Creek. Here, the offending company, Denbury Onshore LLC (notice how all these companies are LLC’s—Limited Liability Corporations? Could you find a more appropriately named business structure than that for these guys?) seems to be an even worse player than Halek Operating. Denbury has run afoul of the law so many times that they maintain a full legal department of their own, and those boys and girls have been busy lately. They’re no strangers to the inside of a hearing room.

In the last two years, the company has paid more than $50,000 in fines for three separate violations of the Federal Clean Water Act, all for oil spills that ran into rivers and creeks in Texas. Earlier this year, the company agreed to pay a $662,500 fine to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality over a 2011 oil well blowout, one of the largest environmental fines Mississippi has assessed in the last 10 years. Mississippi shouldn’t have trouble collecting that—the company appears to be pretty cash rich right now. In late 2012, the company sold much of its Bakken assets in North Dakota and Montana to Exxon Mobil for $1.6 billion. That’s Billion, with a B.

The 2011 Mississippi blowout wasn’t the company’s first. In fact, it was the third blowout in Mississippi since 2007. They also had one near Killdeer, in North Dakota, in September of 2010, spilling 2,400 barrels of oil and salt water. And their most recent spill was back in June of this year, along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, where Denbury is still cleaning up after a major spill (they still call them “spills” in Louisiana). The company estimates it is going to spend $98 million to get that fixed. Must have been a bad one.

Earlier this year, 30 homes at Denham Springs, LA, just down the road, had to be evacuated when two Denbury oil storage tanks caught fire on May 2.

But it appears that all these catastrophes are just part of normal business operations for Denbury. Earlier this month, the Dallas Morning News reported that the company’s third quarter revenues set a new record for the company, taking in $674 million. The paper also reported:

The record quarter came despite a falloff in oil production from last quarter as the company shut down part of one of its Louisiana fields to try and address carbon dioxide leaks.

            Unlike most oil companies that drill for oil, Denbury pumps carbon dioxide into previously tapped oil fields to bring crude to the surface. Since 2007 the company has experienced a series of carbon dioxide leaks through abandoned wells in Mississippi and Louisiana. Earlier this year Denbury agreed to pay a $662,500 fine to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

            “Our remediation efforts at Delhi Field are progressing well and we have resumed carbon dioxide injections into areas surrounding the impacted area,” Denbury CEO Phil Rykhoek said in a statement. “We continue to expect company-wide production to resume its sequential growth in the fourth quarter.”

            Even with the slowdown in Lousiana, Denbury reported a $102 million profit in the third quarter, a 20 percent increase from a year ago.

Well, a $102 million profit in just three months. Not bad. We shouldn’t have any problem collecting a pretty big fine from them over this spill in Bowman County.

I learned all of this in about 20 minutes this morning by just Googling Denbury Resources. And I only went to page 2 of the Google list before deciding that was enough—it was getting really depressing reading this stuff.

I don’t quite know what to make of all this. These Denbury guys are obviously bad actors. I’d say maybe it is time the Industrial Commission has its enforcement people over at Lynn Helms’ office (yeah, right) haul these Denbury boys in and have a talk with them. Obviously it’s going to take some time and money to clean up 700,000 gallons of salt water. The Dickinson Press story this morning said this:

Dean Pearson, Bowman County emergency manager, said the creek eventually runs into the Little Missouri River. The cleanup effort will include tests between where the spill stopped and where it goes into the river to make sure the saltwater isn’t traveling that way, Pearson said.

            “Oil is easy to clean up,” Pearson said. “This is tough. It sometimes kills grass for years to come after if it’s not cleaned up properly. It’s actually more of a concern, environmentally, than oil is.”

While that is going on, Helms’ staff should be deciding whether they even want this company operating here any more. They are just another disaster waiting to happen. During the hearing on which the Industrial Commission levied the $1.5 million fine against Halek earlier this year, the Commission chairman, Jack Dalrymple, said “There will not be any exceptions or leniency when these things happen.”

Well, Jack, maybe it’s time to send another message to the industry.  A real message. A really strong message. A message that leaves no mistake about whether we are serious about protecting our state.  Jason Halek has gone back to Texas, never to be seen in North Dakota again. Maybe it’s time to just tell Denbury to clean up its mess and get the hell out of here too. I’d vote for that.

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Special Places? How About American Treasures?

A short history lesson on the Little Missouri National Grasslands of western North Dakota.

For thousands of years Indian nations hunted and thrived on the grasslands. A spiritual tie to the land based on Indian beliefs developed and is still honored today. However, as America pushed west, the grasslands became home to new settlers in the form of homesteads. It was U.S. government homesteading policy that encouraged these people to settle the prairie.

            These new homesteaders tilled the land and raised crops to “prove up” the land for ownership. But when drought came in the 1930s, crops shriveled and the fragile, exposed soil blew. The “Dust Bowl Era” drove people away from the land and devastated local economies.

The homestead policy wasn’t always compatible with available land. Drought, temperature extremes, insects and fire played a significant role on the prairie. The grasslands could not sustain large-scale farming, but the land would grow grass in most years. With government help, farmers became ranchers and some of the natural processes that sustained the prairie throughout time began to take hold once again.

            In an effort to add economic stability to failing local economies, the U.S. government began buying private lands, under programs called Land Utilization Projects. What began as a program to purchase and develop submarginal land, gradually evolved and expanded into a program designed to transfer land to its most suitable use: ranching.

            Much history remains to be written about the national grasslands. These lands can help people maintain a quality of life, both for the people who live and work on these lands, and for the people interested in spending time visiting these American treasures. People come to the grasslands not only to seek solitude, but also to teach their children how to canoe, to camp, or to hunt – to appreciate nature. The potential for outdoor recreation to help sustain local economies is great, as is the potential to continue the tradition of providing our children and future generations with special places to develop an appreciation for the natural resources of the country.

            Those words come from the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision on use of the million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota’s Bad Lands, written in 2002 by Bradley Powell, Regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service. Powerful words and an insightful analysis by a mid-level federal employee who obviously had found his calling in life.

Take serious note of the last line of that introduction, and its use of the phrase “special places.” Go back and look at that last sentence. Because you’re going to continue to hear, over the next few months, that phrase “Special Places” in the context of what the North Dakota Industrial Commission may or may not do to begin an awareness program that will recognize that there are pieces of land in North  Dakota—even very small pieces—on which we should not drill an oil well. If the North Dakota news media does its job, and those of us who watch both the Industrial Commission and the news media do ours, and the public responds to what they read, see and hear in the media, then the Industrial Commission is going to have to follow through on something they’ve been talking about for almost a year now. They’ve crossed the River Rubicon. Now they must take at least a first tentative step on shore to see what lies there.

It all began about a year ago, when someone, I think it was Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, said at an Industrial Commission meeting last January that perhaps it is time to make a list of places that should get some consideration beyond rubber-stamp approval when a drilling permit application is received which might impact them. Then, in May, Jack Dalrymple (perhaps feeling a little cabin fever on a much warmer day than that one back in January on which Stenehjem spoke up) proposed the Industrial Commission take a tour of some of those places.

What prompted Dalrymple’s suggestion was a letter the Commission had received from a group of conservation organizations that said, in part,  “We strongly urge you to identify special places of natural and cultural importance that are deserving of protection, like the Elkhorn Ranch and lands adjacent to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and implement regulations to deny oil and gas development in those areas.” (Emphasis mine.) The letter was signed by representatives of the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Badlands Conservation Alliance, the Dakota Resource Council, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Environmental Law and Policy Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association. An impressive group. I wrote about them last year.

It’s the first time, I think, that the term “Special Places” was attached to the idea of protecting some areas of the state from oil development, and it is a phrase that has stuck. It has been the subject of much discussion. Discussion. But no action.

After getting some big headlines, and kudos in newspaper editorials, Dalrymple changed his mind and said that busy government officials just couldn’t find time in their schedules for such a tour. He did take a little one-day pilgrimage himself in August, and held a press conference with a dramatic Bad Lands background, but has proposed no action. Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring just blows the issue off, saying “all of North Dakota is special.” Stenehjem, though, has been a bit dogged in his determination to see SOMETHING done, and we might see the beginnings of a list and a special new rule for an approval process for drilling permits come before the Commission next month. It will be interesting to see if he can convince Dalrymple and Goehring that any new rules are necessary.

Earlier this month, I posted here, and sent to the Attorney General, my list of “Special Places.”  For the most part, they involve public land, because sometime in the past, someone in a leadership position in government recognized that they had some important scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational or environmental value and saw to it that they became publicly owned. Many of them are located in or near the million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands which Forester Powell was writing about in his Record of Decision.

A Record of Decision is essentially a plan for the use of federally owned lands, and the process used to write that plan is painfully slow because it pauses, along the way to completion, for numerous public input sessions (something the North Dakota  Industrial Commission has studiously avoided). The land, after all, belongs to all the people of the United States. We entrust its care, in this case, to the U.S. Forest Service, but the Forest Service must care for it the way we want it cared for.

Another short history lesson. The land purchase by the government that Powell refers to was specifically an effort to help keep ranchers on the land in western North Dakota during the “Dirty 30’s.” Generally what happened is that a rancher kept ownership of the “home place,” anywhere from a quarter section to a couple of sections, and sold the rest to the government, which then leased it back to the rancher, generally for pennies on the dollar. The cash infusion to the rancher from the sale of his land allowed him to pay some bills (maybe the mortgage on the home place) and remain on the land during those awful Dust Bowl days. In North Dakota, the government bought up about a million acres, and leased it all back to the ranchers for grazing cattle. Today, most of those ranches remain intact (thanks to what many term embarrassingly low grazing fees on the federal lands), either from having been passed down in the family to sons and daughters, or through sale to newcomers who wanted to be Bad Lands ranchers. For the most part, the ranchers who use our public lands now to sustain their operations have been pretty good caretakers. For the most part, it is a government program that has worked the way it was intended.

But because those million acres are publicly owned, there have been some restrictions placed on them over the years. The Grasslands Management Plan that came about as a result of that Record of Decision requires the National Grasslands to be managed under a “multiple-use” concept. In addition to allowing for ranchers to run their cattle, the Forest Service manages the land for outdoor recreation and mineral development, as well as habitat for wildlife and healthy, diverse vegetation. That was a land use policy championed by Theodore Roosevelt, who created the U.S. Forest Service during his presidency, and believed that each acre the government owned ought to be put to its best use—commercial, industrial, residential, agricultural or recreational.

Because of that policy (Roosevelt coined the phrase “wise use” to describe it), it wasn’t so long ago that half a million acres of the National Grasslands in North Dakota were still pretty much in a pristine state, used only for the grazing of cattle and recreation. Those were the wisest uses of the National Grasslands in North Dakota. That’s changed since we discovered they are underlain with oil. All but about 50,000 acres of the million acres of National Grasslands—about 95 per cent—is now leased for oil development. Wise use? Well, in some cases, with proper reclamation laws, I’d guess so. But there probably are some places where oil development is not the best use. And so there are efforts underway to protect that remaining 50,000 acres permanently, which I have written about before.

Soon, the drilling rigs are going to march south, across the Missouri River and its great Lake Sakakawea, and into the National Grasslands, an area we more commonly call the North Dakota Bad Lands and the Missouri Slope. And that’s where you’ll find most of the “Special Places” on anyone’s list for which the North Dakota Industrial Commission is being asked to provide protection.

Theodore Roosevelt recognized long ago, when he created the Forest Service, that there was a need to develop a “wise use” policy for millions of acres of “special places” in America. Forester Powell reaffirmed that in his Record of Decision for our own National Grasslands here in North Dakota. Now we just need to encourage our own Industrial Commission to follow Roosevelt and Powell’s lead.

Let me ask you just one more time to join with the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Badlands Conservation Alliance, the Dakota Resource Council, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Environmental Law and Policy Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association in urging the North Dakota Industrial Commission, at its next meeting in December, to adopt its list of “Special Places,” and a process for dealing with oil and gas drilling permit applications that impact them. Remind them of Forester Powell’s words, worth sharing one more time:

These lands can help people maintain a quality of life, both for the people who live and work on these lands, and for the people interested in spending time visiting these American treasures. People come to the grasslands not only to seek solitude, but also to teach their children how to canoe, to camp, or to hunt – to appreciate nature. The potential for outdoor recreation to help sustain local economies is great, as is the potential to continue the tradition of providing our children and future generations with special places to develop an appreciation for the natural resources of the country.

            American Treasures. Perhaps an even better phrase than Special Places.

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Here’s How We Can Help Wayne Stenehjem Tackle The Oil Industry

I’m beginning to think that Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem might just be ready to really start looking at oil and gas drilling permit applications instead of just giving them blanket approval at monthly meetings of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. That would be the best news to come out of the Oil Patch since fracking was invented.

Stenehjem and some in the conservation community coined the phrase “special places” last May after a couple of controversial permit applications made a lot of news and noise. The first was approval of an application to drill 8 wells near the Killdeer Mountains, in an area that residents and historians felt was “culturally significant.” The other was an application, later withdrawn after media exposure, to drill a well next to the Elkhorn Ranch. Stenehjem said it might be a good idea to make a list of some of the areas that needed to get special consideration when permits are issued. Jack Dalrymple agreed that it might be a good idea to come up with that list, and even go on a little tour to see some of them. Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring nodded.

That was six months ago. Since then, a couple thousand permits have been issued with still no formal procedure in place to see if they might be for places that really shouldn’t have an oil well. But there’s been activity on “making a list” on a couple of fronts. Jack Dalrymple went to Little Missouri State Park, where the Commission had already issued a number of drilling permits, and held a press conference to say that he was concerned about issuing drilling permits in places like Little Missouri State Park. Uh huh. And Stenehjem convened a panel of people whose opinions he respected and asked them for advice, but once the news media found out about it, he unconvened the panel.

But as the media (and bloggers) stayed with the story, Stenehjem’s been using some interesting language lately in news stories, where phrases like “extraordinary places that also will include the Little Missouri River and Bullion Butte,” “requirements spelled out in administrative rules,” “requiring pipe placement to avoid flaring natural gas,” and “formal procedure.”

And the latest story in the newspapers says he is going to make some kind of proposal at a December 19 Industrial Commission meeting. All of those reports give those of us concerned about rampant, unrestrained drilling cause for some hope. I’ve been about as critical of the Industrial Commission and its members as anyone, but I’ve never felt it was good to just be critical, without offering some alternative. So last week I sent to Stenehjem my ideas for how the Industrial Commission could begin to examine each drilling permit application and make a decision based on information provided to them by their own state government agencies.

I’m not the only one to do this. Others have also proposed ideas for actual administrative rules, perhaps the ones Stenehjem is referring to, which would require that staff with expertise on the scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational and environmental values of land proposed for oil and gas drilling sign off on permits before they are approved. That would be the best of all possible worlds.

So I’m just going to share with you the proposal I sent to the Attorney General. This is only one idea. I think it would be good if he heard from a lot of people between now and December 19, so please send him yours as well. There’s a nice lady in his office named Liz Brocker who takes e-mails at lbrocker@nd.gov and passes them on to Wayne. I think he reads them. So please let him know what you think as well. There are a whole lot of “special places” in western North Dakota that will thank you. Here’s what I sent to Stenehjem.

SPECIAL PLACES IN WESTERN NORTH DAKOTA

The reality of the Bakken Boom is this: We now have somewhere around nine thousand oil wells in North Dakota, a number which is growing rapidly, on our way to 40 or 50 thousand. The best sites have been cherry picked for ease of access to oil and avoidance of public criticism. There is going to be more and more pressure on permitting agencies to allow development in more sensitive areas as the boom progresses.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission, which grants drilling permits, has indicated a willingness to consider developing some kind of criteria which will require oil companies to consider scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational and environmental values when locating drilling sites.  For the purpose of discussion, I have divided sites with these values into three categories.

The first category is for federally owned lands, such as National Parks and National Grasslands roadless areas, which already have restrictions on surface occupancy, but on which the state could add other protections, such as viewshed or noise buffer zones, in the location of drilling sites. In the case of a National Park, for example, a buffer zone could be created that would protect the viewshed from the park. A well might be located as close as a quarter mile from the Park boundary but out of sight of visitors to the park. Or, the Commission might require a well site to be moved two miles from the Park if there is no other way to access a lease without visual interruption to Park visitors. Likewise, if a permit application placed a well too close to a National Wildlife Refuge offering critical wildlife habitat (protected piping plovers, for example), the Commission might create a two-mile buffer zone around that refuge, requiring oil companies to access their lease horizontally—these days not a burdensome requirement.

The second category is lands owned or managed by the State of North Dakota. Generally, except for state school lands given to us at statehood, these are lands which have been acquired because they have some special value—parks, forests, wildlife areas and historic sites. On these lands, state agencies could make recommendations to the Commission about surface occupancy to protect those special values for which they were acquired. That’s already being done on state school lands. So the same process could be applied to other drilling permit applications, using the stipulation criteria already being used on school lands.

The third category is for areas such as buttes, trails and river valleys with scenic or other non-commercial values. These lands generally include a mix of public and privately owned land, so any restrictions placed on them would generally be well-site location recommendations to drillers to protect the scenic value of the areas. An example would be placing a well site out of sight of the front porch of a hunting lodge in the Bad Lands or away from a well-used hiking trail. Oil companies who are good partners and good corporate citizens should be receptive to recommendations from experts on well site locations which are not onerous.

Of course, all of these tasks are going to require sufficient staff at state agencies to review drilling permit applications to look for areas that need special consideration or permit stipulations. It’s a logical assumption that a request from the Industrial Commission to the Emergency Commission for additional FTE’s and funds to hire them will be met with favor.          Because state agencies generally have access to GIS map layers, this task is not overly burdensome. It will just require time from agency staffs, and the knowledge, which will increase over time, to make recommendations on oil well placement. Nothing in this proposal will diminish the number of permits issued, nor will it, once implemented, slow the process of issuing permits. It is going to cost the state some money, but in the end it is going to make for better partnership between state regulators and the oil industry. In time, in fact, the industry will come to recognize areas the state is interested in, and incorporate that interest into their permit applications, speeding up the process of permit approval.

The lists below are not intended to create a priority ranking. As one state agency head said recently, “They are all important. They just need different kinds of consideration.” These categories are intended to show that there are numerous areas of special interest—Special Places—which require different kinds of attention in the permitting and drilling process.

CATEGORY 1

Areas managed by federal agencies, that already have some surface occupancy restrictions or stipulations, around which we should create either a buffer zone or require viewshed and noise protection stipulations.

  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park, all three units
  • Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River Valley above the lake, and the Yellowstone River Valley
  • All non-motorized areas of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, including interior and adjacent state lands
  • National Wildlife Refuges, Federal Waterfowl Production Areas, and other areas identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat areas
  • National Historic Sites, Districts and Landmarks

CATEGORY 2

Areas managed by the State of North Dakota in which appropriate state agencies should make recommendations to the Industrial Commission on buffer zones, surface occupancy, well site locations and/or other appropriate stipulations (a model of which is already in use for state school lands), to offer some level of protection to areas in which the state has a significant investment.

  • North Dakota State Parks, Forests, Recreation Areas, Preserves, Natural Areas and other lands managed by the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department or State Forestry Department
  • North Dakota State Historic Sites and other historic areas managed, or identified as having historical significance, by the State Historical Society of North Dakota
  • North Dakota Wildlife Management Areas and other areas identified as critical habitat by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department
  • North Dakota State School Lands (already included in this category and already  subject to stipulations)

CATEGORY 3

Areas of particular scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational or environmental significance, not necessarily owned or managed by a government agency, around which we should create viewshed protection, noise buffers and/or attach other surface occupancy stipulations to drilling permits to retain the non-commercial value of these areas. A partial list, which may be enhanced by agencies, organizations or people with expertise in these areas, is included here.

  • The Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley
  • The Killdeer Mountains
  • The west slope of the Turtle Mountains
  • The Maah Daah Hey Trail
  • Paleontological sites in Bowman and Slope Counties
  • Knife River Flint Quarries
  • Areas identified by the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commissioner or Tribal officials as having historical, religious or other special significance to Native American Tribes
  • Bad Lands scenic areas such as White Butte, Chalky Buttes, Black Butte, Square Butte, Sentinel Butte, Camel’s Hump Butte, Pretty Butte, the Teepee Buttes, the Burning Coal Vein area, the Ponderosa Pine, Limber Pine and Columnar Juniper areas, and Tracy Mountain

In summary, this proposal generally proposes that each drilling permit application from this point forward be looked at by state agency professionals to make sure well sites and other surface disturbances related to oil and gas production are properly located. Such scrutiny will allow our state agencies to also consider the cumulative impact of the oil and gas industry on our natural and cultural resources and recommend to the Industrial Commission additional management practices to deal with that as well.

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Journalism 101

A friend of mine once described me as a “lapsed journalist.” I corrected him and said I was a “recovering journalist.” In either case, the title gives me the credentials to tell you a story about the sorry state of journalism in North Dakota.

Last Sunday, the Forum Communications Company’s North Dakota papers ran a story written by a young reporter that was generated by a blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. (My blog, coincidentally, is hosted by Forum Communications, and shows up on the Area Voices sections of the websites of their newspapers, four of which—The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, The Grand Forks Herald, The Jamestown Sun and The Dickinson Press—are in North Dakota. It’s on their websites for now, at least. That may change after I finish writing this. I hope not, though.) In the blog post, I was pretty critical of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. The issue was the list of “Special Places” the North Dakota Industrial Commission is compiling, places which may or may not get special consideration when the Commission issues oil and gas drilling permits. You can read the story here if you want to.

The story was a summary of a long interview the reporter did with the Attorney General. Wayne defended what he had been doing that I was critical of, refuted a few things I said, but generally was kinder to me than I had been to him. That’s his style, and it’s why I still kind of like him. The reporter, however, was not so kind. He summarized what my blog had said in two sentences and then wrote “Fuglie did not return a phone message left at his home Thursday.”

As I said, the story ran on Sunday. Three days after he said he left me a message. Except that he didn’t leave me a message. Because I don’t have a phone at my home. When Lillian and I moved back to Bismarck in 2009, we both had cell phones, all of our friends had our numbers, and we couldn’t see wasting 50 or 60 bucks a month on a land line. So we didn’t.

Now, the fact that the story said I didn’t return the reporter’s call could have left, and probably did leave, a bad impression of me with the readers. Hmmm, Fuglie was afraid to respond to Stenehjem, or didn’t care enough to tell his side of the story, or something like that. Because the story ran on Sunday, and he got the message way back on Thursday. Surely Fuglie had time to return the call in three days.

All I know is, it really pissed me off. Not that I had much more to say (although I am usually not at a loss for words when a microphone is waved in front of my face), but that readers got a bad impression of me for not responding. So when I read the story, I found the reporter’s e-mail address and sent him an e-mail telling him I had no home phone and had never received a phone message from him.  After a brief exchange of e-mails (all of which included my cell phone number) he explained that he had done something called a Lexis/Nexis search for me which turned up an old phone number which had been assigned to me back in 1982 and which was disconnected when I moved out to western North Dakota in 2004. His search showed my correct current address, with no current phone number, but it did show the old phone number listed by Lexis/Nexis with a previous address where I had lived when I had that phone number—nine years ago. So he called that number and left a message. On the voice mail of the person who now has that phone number. And then waited for me to respond. And that was the extent of his search for me, to include my comments in his story.

In his e-mail response to me, when he sent me his Lexis/Nexis search story, he ended his e-mail with “Just curious, is the other Jim Fuglie (wife Rose) a relative of yours?”

            I wrote back that my wife’s name is Lillian, and that there is only one other Jim Fuglie in the whole world, my third cousin in Minneapolis, whose wife’s name is Kaye. But I puzzled over that question for a while, and then decided to become a reporter and do some investigating. I wanted to know whose voice mail he had left a message for me on. So I went to the online White Pages directory and did a reverse phone look-up for the number that used to be mine. Sure enough, it has been reassigned. To James Rose. Hmmm.  James Rose. Hmmm. Jim Rose. Light bulb came on. I called the number. Got a voice mail message: “Hello, this is Jim Rose. I can’t come to the phone right now . . .” Not “Jim and Rose.” Just “Jim Rose.” Articulated very clearly. Mystery solved. I did not leave a message.

Well, that, unfortunately, has become the standard for reporting the news in North Dakota. Write a story, make a half-hearted effort to contact people named in the story, then run it. My, how things have changed since my days as a reporter and editor. My editor at the Dickinson Press once told me “It is not good enough to say someone was ‘unavailable for comment’ (which I once tried to do in a story about coal development in 1975) until you have exhausted every possibility that you might be able to track them down.” In our case, that meant staying on the phone right up until our 9:30 or 10 p.m. deadline, or driving to the bowling alley where they might be in a league, or calling their cousin in Bowman to see if he knew where the person might be. I often was able to reach someone who was a principal in a story by simply staying with the effort. And in pretty much every case, it made the story better. Sometimes, when you could not get both sides of the story, you had to just hold the story until the next day (or until Sunday), until you finally reached everybody. Not in 2013. Today, you just say “Well, we left a message for the asshole, but he didn’t call us back, so screw him.” Usually, though, I think the reporters try to make sure they leave the message at the right house.  Usually. Not always. Of course, in my day there was no such thing as voice mail, so you couldn’t just say “He did not return a phone message left at his home Thursday.” You actually had to keep calling back until you either reached someone or you reached your deadline.

There’s a story I used to tell reporters who worked for me, or with me, that bears repeating. It was election night, 1972 at The Dickinson Press. The entire Press staff was working the phones, tracking down election results, including a young high school senior, who was a paid part-time staffer, but I suppose would be called an intern today.  County auditors in southwest North Dakota had been asked to call in the results of the election in their county. The Press was not only doing its own story, but forwarding the results to the Associated Press, which was compiling the results statewide and announcing the winners. There was a very close race for Governor between Art Link and Richard Larsen, and it was not going to be decided until every county’s results had been tabulated.

As the paper’s deadline neared, The Press staff had results from all of its assigned counties except Adams County, in extreme southwest North Dakota. There was no answer at the county auditor’s office. The office had been closed for the night and everyone gone home, without reporting in. What to do? Put the paper to bed without the Adams County results? Nope, said the editor, keep trying. We’ll hold the presses.

Well, it turns out one reporter happened to be from Adams County, and he told the young intern the auditor’s name and said to call her home. He did. No answer. Well, then, call the bars in Hettinger, starting with the Pastime, the reporter said to the intern. Sometimes they go out for a drink after they are done working.

Bingo. She was at the Pastime. She had the results in her car. She got them and gave them to the intern over the phone from the bar. With that, the story was complete and the paper went to print. In the morning, everyone knew that in spite of the fact Richard Larsen had beaten Art Link by 16 votes out of almost 2,000 cast in Adams County, Art Link had been elected Governor, by less than 5,000 votes statewide. (And, as an aside, that Byron Dorgan beat Richard Lommen for State Tax Commissioner by a vote of 1,350 to 377 in Adams County.)

“Scoop” Jenkinson and “Ace” Jacobs, ca. 1972

It would have been easy for The Press to report “Results from Adams County were not available because the county auditor failed to report them.” Would have made the auditor look pretty bad. But the newspaper’s job is to gather the news, and report it. Not reporting it is cheating the newspaper’s subscribers, who paid to learn who won the election. And because that young high school senior, Clay Jenkinson, listened to that former Adams County resident across the desk from him, Jim Fuglie, and got back on the phone and started calling bars, earning himself the nickname “Scoop” from that day forward, the story was complete. That’s good journalism, the way it used to be practiced. And should still be. But these days, a voice mail is sufficient. Even if it is pretty clear that the voice mail was left on someone else’s phone.
In this case, the reporter tried to reach me on a Thursday. I did not respond immediately because I did not get the message. But the story did not run until Sunday. So he had Friday and Saturday to try to track me down to ask me whatever it was he was going to ask me. He didn’t do that. These days, it is pretty easy to track someone down, with all the communications devices available. I communicate regularly with a number of Forum Communications employees by e-mail and phone. I am Facebook friends with many of them, including both Bill Marcils. My e-mail is on my Facebook page. I have a comment section on my blog, which sends me an e-mail when someone comments, as he should have known, since the blog is on all the Forum Communications websites. Pretty much everyone who knows me or knows of me knows that I worked for the Democratic-NPL Party and the Medora Foundation, so they would surely know how to find me. I could go on.

But you know what? I don’t just fault the reporter. That story appeared in four North Dakota newspapers. It had to get past four city editors before it got into the papers. Every one of those editors should have said “Wait a minute, how hard did you try to reach Fuglie? Try again. The story is not complete, and you have a couple days to fix it.” But instead, they just ran with what they had. Bad journalism. Top to bottom.

To their credit, senior editors at the Grand Forks Herald, by far the state’s best newspaper, took a look at the story when it appeared in the paper and said “Well, that’s not good enough.” So they ran an editorial the next day, which you can read here. The Dickinson Press also reprinted it a couple days later. The Forum ran a correction in the paper the next day which said “A message left Thursday for former North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party executive director Jim Fuglie was left at the wrong phone number, so Fuglie did not have an opportunity to respond to a request for comment. This information was incorrect in a story on Page C1 of Sunday’s Forum about North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s effort to compile a list of ‘extraordinary places’ in the state for protection from energy development and other impacts.” I wasn’t able to get printed copies of the other three papers so I don’t know if they also ran the correction. None of them ran it on their website, where I first read the story, that I can tell.

Now, I hope readers don’t get the impression I’m feeling picked on or feeling sorry for myself. I’m not. This isn’t really about me, and it really isn’t about the young reporter who did this story. I’ve been bemoaning the sorry state of journalism in North Dakota for a long time, and this is a classic example of how the news media here operates today. Next time you read a newspaper story, and you come to the line “Fred did not respond to a request for comment” you’ll likely know that the reporter did not really make much of an effort to reach Fred, and his or her editor did not care. I am a newspaper junkie, having been raised in the profession. But I have a lot of friends who have just given up on subscribing to their local paper because of the quality of journalism they see, and have come to expect. Instead, they glance through the news online. They watch “The Daily Show” (but not the six o’clock news). Newspaper circulation continues to decline. So do television news ratings. There’s a reason. You just finished reading about it.

Footnote: A short crime story in Friday’s Bismarck Tribune, by an Associated Press writer, contained these three statements:

  • The man’s attorney, Henry Howe, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
  • Pembina County State’s Attorney Barbara Whelan also did not immediately return a call seeking more information on the case.
  • The woman did not immediately respond to requests for comment made Thursday through Facebook. (!!!) (emphasis and exclamatory incredibility mine)

I checked online, and it ran in pretty much every paper in the state. Just like that. Apparently this is indeed the new standard for news reporting (and editing) in North Dakota. Isn’t that sad?

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Black Gold; Texas Tea

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

                                    The Ballad of Jed Clampett

Well, it would be fun to think that was what happened up in Williams County to cause what is now described as the largest ever land-based oil spill in America. But Jed Clampett didn’t shoot a hole in Tesoro Petroleum’s pipeline, unleashing 865,000 gallons of crude oil, I don’t think.

So how did all that oil get out of the pipeline, and into the air, and on and under the ground, in such a short period of time? That’s a question that’s going to be answered eventually, I hope, because we need to know that answer to try to figure out how never to let it happen again.

As I said the other day, I’m an English major, so I just love to do simple math problems, as a sense of accomplishment, if for nothing else. All the newspaper stories I’ve seen say the oil came from a quarter-inch hole in an underground pipeline. So I asked a friend the other day “How long does it take for 865,000 gallons of oil to get through a quarter-inch hole in a pipeline?” In fact, I asked several friends. The common response was, “I suppose it depends on how much pressure there was in the pipe.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “but it was a hole the size of a pencil. How much will actually fit through a hole that size at one time, even with a lot of pressure? Besides, the pipe was underground, so it had to push away some dirt to get out of the hole.”

Okay, let’s do some math. I took my garden hose—five-eighths of an inch across, more than twice the size of that quarter-inch hole in the pipeline—and filled a five-gallon pail. Took a couple of minutes. But let’s assume there was more pressure in that pipe than in my garden hose. A lot more. Let’s say, because of pressure behind it, it could spurt five gallons of that thick, bubbly crude a minute out of that ¼ inch hole, about twice as much as my 5/8 inch hose. At that rate, it would take 173,000 minutes to emit 865,000 gallons. That’s 2,883 hours and 20 minutes. Or about 120 days, about 4 months.

Okay, okay, if it had been leaking that long, surely someone—Tesoro, or the farmer who owned the land and had planted a crop there last spring—would have noticed it. Besides, the wheat grew, matured, ripened and was combined, and it wouldn’t have done that in a pool of oil.

So let’s say it leaked twice that much—ten gallons a minute. At ten gallons a minute, it’s really shooting out of that quarter-inch hole. For 60 days. Two months. Still not reasonable? Okay, let’s say 20 gallons a minute. Now we’re talking a geyser the likes of which we haven’t seen since the movie “Giant.” I mean, to get 20 gallons of thick gooey oil out of a quarter-inch hole in a pipe in one minute, now that would be something to see. At that rate, it would have been gushing for 30 days, according to my math.

But wait. Tesoro said they ran a “smart pig” though the line during an inspection just a couple weeks before the spill was reported on Sept. 29. Inspected the pipe September 10-11, they said. Holy cow! If the pipeline started leaking the day after that test, it had to have been gushing about 40 gallons a minute. I’m trying to picture 40 gallons of oil coming out of a ¼ inch hole in a minute. An underground pipeline. I can’t see it in my mind’s eye.

I’m sorry, folks, but something is just not adding up here. Somebody is not telling the truth here. It is time to find out. Because there are hundreds, maybe thousands of miles of underground pipe in North Dakota. It is time for our state officials to get to the bottom of this. There has to be a record of how much oil went into that pipe every day. There has to be a record of how much oil came out the other end every day. So we’re going to know for sure someday how much leaked. Then we need to know exactly how much oil can come through a pencil-sized hole at certain amounts of pressure. I wish I knew that. Because then maybe I wouldn’t be so suspicious that the hole in the pipe was waaaaaay bigger than we’ve been led to believe. Or that it had been leaking a looooong time, undetected by an irresponsible company.

P.S. My friend Jeff sent me this story today, showing how really bad things can be, but also how quickly some pipeline companies can react to a spill. Looks like we got “lucky” that we were only dealing with a quarter inch hole. Or so.

 

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