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:
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.
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.