JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Crying Over Spilt Oil — And Brine

OK, when technology fails you, sometimes you just have to do things the old fashioned way.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the North Dakota Department of Health’s Environmental Incident database and how difficult it is to track the performance of various oil companies. I haven’t heard back from the governor yet, and being an impatient Norwegian, I decided not to wait for them to upgrade it because they might never do that. And being retired with not a lot to do on cold days, I decided to become a human search engine.

So I went and physically called up, on the website, the actual Environmental Incident Reports for the 100 worst oil spills — and the 100 worst saltwater spill — in the Oil Patch since the Bakken Boom began. I know. I need to get a life. But it really was pretty interesting.

What I found out is there are some pretty bad actors out there. The five companies with the most spills, combined, accounted for 30 percent of the 200 worst Oilfield Incidents.

The 200 worst spills were committed by a total of 87 different companies. Most had one or two, although there were a good number that had three or four.

But the bad ones spilled a lot. Remember, I’ve pointed out here just from memory of news reports that Oasis Petroleum, Continental Resources and Denbury Onshore must be among the spill leaders. Well, they were.

Oasis, which just announced it’s producing about 70,000 barrels of oil per day and had third quarter earnings of $180 million, led the pack with 15 total spills out of the top 200.

Continental, owned by Harold Hamm, the “Father of Fracking,” and Donald Trump’s No. 1 energy adviser, had 13.

Denbury had nine.

Joining them in the top 5 were Petro Hunt (the famous Hunt brothers) with 13 and Whiting, a company with almost half a million leased mineral acres in the Bakken, with 10.

Those five have a total of 60 spills among them, almost 30 percent of the top 200 (there are actually a few more than 200 in the top 200 because of ties).

I didn’t add up all the barrels of oil and saltwater they’ve spilled, but I’m pretty sure they don’t match a couple of other companies with really, really big spills. You’ve probably heard about them.

Back in 2013, Tesoro (you’ve heard of them, eh?) dumped more than 20,000 barrels — the actual total was 865,000 gallons — of oil on a farmer’s field up on the Mountrail-Williams county line.

And just about a year ago, Belle Fourche Pipeline Co., a subsidiary of True Oil Co. from Wyoming, dumped 12,615 (more or less) barrels of oil — more than half a million gallons — into Ash Coulee Creek in Billings County, north of Belfield. So far, Tesoro and Belle Fourche are the two big winners in the North Dakota Oil Spill Lottery.

I did do some math on the total amount of oil and saltwater spilled in the 200 biggest spills in North Dakota since the Bakken Boom began. Get ready for this. In the top 100 oil spills, companies dumped 107,122 barrels of oil onto the ground and into rivers, creeks, lakes and other wetlands. That’s 4.5 million gallons of oil from just those 100 spills.

Compared to saltwater spills, which most environmental scientists tell us are worse than oil spills, that’s nuthin’. The top 100 saltwater spills recorded with the North Dakota Health Department came to 247,704 barrels — 10.5 million gallons of poisonous brine that kills everything it comes into contact with and renders soil pretty much permanently sterile and unusable. When you read the incident reports on these saltwater spills, you learn that if the spill is on land, they just dig up all the dirt and haul it to a landfill. But it is different when it spills into a creek.

There was a big one up north of Williston a couple of years ago. A pipeline owned by a company called Summit Midstream ruptured in the dead of winter and almost 3 million gallons of brine flowed into Blacktail Creek, which runs into the Little Muddy River, which runs into the Missouri River, which runs into Lake Sakakawea. That was a real mess. Dams were built to stop it from reaching the lake. Much of it froze in the creek, and then they cut it into big chunks of ice and hauled it away to a landfill. Can’t even imagine what happened in the spring when the ice melted. The incident report on this mess is 63 pages long. Take a look.

The spill happened in 2015, but samples are still being taken from the water up there, the last one as recently as two weeks ago. We don’t know what they’re finding because the results of the samples are not shared in the incident reports. Memo to Jim:  Ask for the results.

In the case of the Tesoro oil spill, they’re still cleaning up the site, almost four years after the spill. First they set fire to the oil on the surface of the field and burned it. Then cleanup involves digging up the soil impacted by the oil and treating it. At last report the pit where they were digging was 40 feet deep. Here’s that Incident Report.

And the Belle Fourche Pipeline story isn’t over yet, either. Last month, almost a full year after the spill, a Health Department Inspector visited Ash Coulee Creek and wrote this on the Incident Report:

“Sampling Date: 10/11/2017 Ash Coulee Creek was sampled at 11 locations for DRO and BTEX. Those samples were brought to the lab on Friday the 13th. Some locations produced a sheen when the stream sediments were disturbed.”

Obviously there’s still oil in the creek. A year later.

So what happens to these companies that carelessly destroy the countryside? Do they get fined? I’ve been curious about that. So I decided to try to find out. You won’t learn anything by reading the incident reports. Those are written by the scientists on the ground, whose job is cleanup. These guys work ridiculously long hours, away from home, in all kinds of weather, trying their darnedest to get these companies to clean up their messes. Unsung heroes.

Punishment, if any is meted out, goes to a higher level at the Health Department. I’m not sure how high, but I decided to ask one of the good guys at the Health Department, a fellow named Bill Suess, who supervises the scientists. Here’s the e-mail I sent Bill this morning:

Dear Bill,

I have been looking at your Environmental Incident Reports, specifically the largest spill reports of both oil and other liquids such as brine. From what I can tell, looking at the 100 largest oil spills and the 100 largest brine spills, there are five companies who have a substantial number of large spills. They are Oasis, Continental, Petro-Hunt, Whiting and Denbury Onshore.

I’d like to know how many of each company’s spills resulted in fines, and the amount of those fines. I’d also like to know if all of those fines have been paid. If not, how many have been paid, how many remain uncollected, and how much money has not been collected, and what steps are being taken to collect them. I’d also like to know if additional fines are being contemplated or pending in any of those cases, and if so, which cases.

I’ve also taken note of two very large spills, the Tesoro spill in Mountrail County in September of 2013 (EIR2056), and the Belle Fourche Pipeline spill in Billings County in December of 2016 (EIR5282). I would like to know if those companies have been fined, or if fines are contemplated and pending, and how much those fines are, and whether they have been paid, and if not, how much remains to be collected, and what steps are being taken to collect them.

I know your staff is very busy keeping up with all these spills, but I feel the public has a right to know which companies are the biggest violators and how those companies are being treated.

Thank you in advance for your help. I look forward to receiving this information.

Jim

I’ll let you know when I hear back from Bill.

And that’s about as many numbers as an English major can handle in one day. I hope I did the math right. Happy Thanksgiving.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A Simple Request To The Governor: Let’s Get Technical

Dear Gov. Burgum,

I am writing to you today about transparency. Transparency in government. Transparency in North Dakota government. Transparency in North Dakota government as it relates to our environment and environmental protection. You’ve said often you believe in transparency. Here’s a chance to prove it.

You’re a new governor this year, and you come from the world of high technology. You’ve got a couple of agencies that are operating at low technology. I’d like you to get them fixed. Because I’m not sure they aren’t trying to hide something from us by keeping their technology low. So I’m making two requests, Governor, to do a little technology upgrade.

The first is at the State Health Department. My friend, Darrell Dorgan, has been regularly critical of them for being too interested in the welfare of industry (read: Big Oil), at the expense of the environment. If you look at some of the stuff they do, you might think that’s the case. I’ve thought for a long time there are good people there who were being leaned on by Govs. Hoeven and Dalrymple to be friendly to Big Oil because that industry, with its boom, was punching their meal tickets during much of their administrations.

The jury’s still out on you, Doug Burgum. Will you let this agency operate as it should? Officially, they are our state’s representatives and enforcers for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, charged with enforcing federal and state environmental regulations. But those regulations sometimes get in the way of the oil industry, and Hoeven and Dalrymple didn’t like that. I don’t know about you yet, Governor. You’re of their political party, but I don’t know if you’re of their ilk. I’ll know better if you respond to my two technology upgrade requests.

Here’s the first one.

The Health Department maintains a website database of what they call “Oilfield Environmental Incidents” in the oil patch. That’s bureaucratese for “spills.” It’s a big database, with records of more than 10,500 spills since Jan. 1, 2008. Quick math — an average of a little over a thousand spills a year for the last 10 years. Here’s the link to the website, so you can take a look for yourself.

If you go there, you’ll see a menu that lets you click on spills in the past 12 months, or spills occurring before that. If you go to one of those databases, you can click on the categories at the top, like the amount of oil spilled in each incident, or the amount of saltwater spilled, from the biggest spills to the smallest (you might have to click twice — they’re pretty cagey). You can click on the county link and find out how many of those incidents occurred in Billings County, or Williams County.

But what you can’t find out is how many of those spills were committed by a particular company. Because there’s no category for that. In order to find out who committed each spill, you have to click on every one of the 10,500 incident reports to find out what company is responsible for each spill.

I know from experience, for example, that there are a couple of companies, Oasis and Denbury, which have been particularly bad violators. In fact, I once wrote on this blog that it was time to kick Denbury out of the state because it was so bad and careless. That was four years ago — Denbury is still here. Its most recent spill was Oct. 5 of this year, when oil and saltwater spilled onto a pasture near Bowman. Denbury still shows up in the database on a pretty regular basis. But you have to look at every incident report to find it. Eight hundred twenty-three incidents this year. So far.

The thing is, there’s really no way of knowing, without looking at all 10,000 incident reports, who the really bad operators are. And that’s the way the industry wants it. Finding out that Denbury or Oasis or Continental (seems to be the most recent bad company) has a hundred or 200 or more spills would just not be good publicity.

And the Health Department has acquiesced to their wishes. Or, more likely, someone in Gov. Hoeven or Gov. Dalrymple’s offices had sent word down to just leave that database the way it is. I talked off the record to a Health Department employee about a year ago and asked about this. He told me they wanted to fix it, and were going to ask for money from the Legislature in 2017 to make the database searchable. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

But now we’ve got a new governor, and he’s a techie! I bet, Governor, if you sent one of your former Microsoft programmers over to the Health Department, they could make that database searchable in 15 minutes. If that’s something you wanted done.

So that’s my first request, Gov. Burgum. Send someone to the Health Department and fix that database. They’re right over there on the second floor of the Judicial Wing of the Capitol Building. Heck, I bet they wouldn’t even have to go over there — they could probably do it from your office. Or from home.

So next time I write a story reporting that Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. is still trying to clean up its 175,000 gallon spill into Ash Coulee Creek last December, I can also find out how many other spills it made since then. Oops, bad example. That one’s not in the database.

See, sometimes whoever happens to be in charge at the moment in the Health Department will, instead of creating an incident report in the oilfield spills database for a particularly egregious spill, like the Ash Coulee one last winter, they’ll instead put it over into a DIFFERENT database, called “General Environmental Incidents.”

I’ve never been able to figure out why they did that for Ash Coulee because it was surely an “Oilfield Environmental Incident,” just like the one by Tesoro a couple of years ago, which spilled 20,600 barrels — 865,000 gallons — up in Mountrail County. The only thing I can figure out is that Tesoro only reported it spilled 750 barrels, so it got listed as an oilfield incident, until a Health Department official discovered two months later that it was really more than 20,000 barrels. Oops. I guess 750 barrel spills get logged in as oilfield incidents, and spills like the Ash Coulee one, at 4,200 barrels, don’t.

It sure is harder to keep track of those things when you have to look through different databases. Oh, yeah. I get it.

Anyway, Gov. Burgum, please put your programmer to work. Oh, and there’s one more thing I’d like you to take care of, while you’ve got your programmer available. That’s over at the State Water Commission website.

Since you’ve just signed a bill allowing industrial use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River (if you haven’t already done so, you could read Amy Dalrymple’s (no relation to Jack) story about this in the Bismarck Tribune by clicking here), and because there are a lot of us who love that river and are concerned about it, we would kind of like to be able to keep track of how many water permits are being issued to take fracking water from the river, and where they are, and how much water they are taking.

Well, the Water Commission, like the Health Department, also maintains a database on its website, called “Water Permits Database” (you can find it here — down toward the bottom of the page), and, in theory, you could get that information from that database. Except you can’t. Because those water permits are not in the database. I know because I know some of the people and companies who have been issued water permits, and they are not in the database.

Oh, the Water Commission does have a double-secret way to find out who has industrial water permits, but you have to be a pretty good detective to find it. Well, I did a little detective work, with some urging from Jan Swenson, executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance, who kept telling me, “They don’t put it in the database, but it’s on the site, you just have to learn how to use the maps.”

Learn how to use the maps. Old dog, new trick. But I did it. It took me a few hours because it is well-hidden, so if you are nosy like me, I’m just going to give you a direct link (sort of) to go and look. Click here, and then go down to the bottom of the page and click on the artwork that says “Water Depots.” (Don’t click on the link that says Water Permits — you won’t find all the Little Missouri water permits there — only some of them.)

Once you’ve clicked on Water Depots, you have to figure out how to use the maps and the embedded database in them. First, you take a tutorial and learn to click on the little bar on the side of the page that says, “Show layers,” and then about half an hour or so later, you’ll find, for example, that a company named Streamline Water Services LLC has a permit to draw 233 million gallons of water (yes, you read that right) from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, on land owned by a rancher named Joe Schettler, between last December and next August. Your state engineer, Governor, has authorized one company to take more than 200 million gallons of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River. Is there even that much water in the river, ever? Geez.

Joe Schettler’s Water Depot, in the center of the photo, hard against the Little Missouri State Scenic River at the top of the photo, courtesy of Google Earth. From here, the big trucks take water to the fracking sites.
Joe Schettler’s Water Depot, in the center of the photo, hard against the Little Missouri State Scenic River at the top of the photo, courtesy of Google Earth. From here, the big trucks take water to the fracking sites.

Streamline has built a big water depot on Schettler’s land, alongside the Little Missouri. Joe also just happens to be Dunn County’s representative on the Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission. I’m not sure if Schettler is a partner in the company, but one way or another, he’s making a lot of money from that water, which he gets pretty much for free — I think the water permit costs a couple hundred dollars.

But anyway, back to matters at hand. It would be pretty easy, Governor, for your Microsoft programmer to run those permits hidden on the map pages into the Water Permit Database, so we could keep track of them, instead of having to wander around that incredibly confusing map system. (I’m guessing, by the way, that the engineers over at the Water Commission are pretty disappointed that an English major like me could figure out how to get this information.)

So that’s my second request, Governor. As soon as you’ve got that Health Department database cleaned up, how about fixing the Water Commission database, too?

Thanks, in advance.

Jim