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.


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 FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Camping At The Elkhorn, Part 2

I’ve spent a lot of nights sleeping within spitting distance of the Little Missouri River. God willing, I’ll spend a lot more.

I’m pretty sure I’ve slept there in every month on the calendar. Some nights — and some months — were better than others. I’ve slept there alone, I’ve slept there with canoeing buddies, I’ve slept there with wives,  with kids, with dogs, with a herd of bison trampling through my campsite, with coyotes howling, with a full moon and a new moon.

I’ve slept there on bare ground with nothing above me but stars, and I’ve slept there in a tent, in a camper, on top of my sleeping bag on hot summer nights and buried under layers of blankets on cold winter nights. I’ve slept there in howling winds and nights when just the slightest breeze rustled the cottonwood leaves above me. I’ve slept there sober and not so sober — those were the nights with my canoeing buddies —  I’ve slept there with aching legs exhausted from bushwhacking through the Bad Lands all day, I’ve slept there with arms so tired from paddling into the wind I can hardly raise myself in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call. I’ve slept on the west bank, the east bank, and islands in the middle of the river. And every one of those nights was better than any night sleeping INDOORS, in a soft, warm bed in winter or in a summertime air-conditioned bedroom.

Most recently, I slept beside the Little Missouri River snuggled against my wife, Lillian, under layers of down sleeping bags Dec. 23, 2016, a cold winter night in the North Dakota Bad Lands, with warnings of the “blizzard of the year approaching” ringing in our ears. I’m saying right now, out loud, it was one of the best nights of my life.

We were on the tail end of a three-day, pre-Christmas Bad Lands getaway, something we try to do every year but don’t always succeed. The day before we had explored the “Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri River” in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where the ranger told us when we stopped at the visitor center, we were Visitors Nos. 6 and 7 to the park that day.

Except for the small herd of bison that created a temporary traffic jam on the Park’s scenic drive, we pretty much had the Bad Lands to ourselves that afternoon, and after watching the sun set over the snow-covered river valley, we headed for, appropriately, the Roosevelt Inn in Watford City for the night.

The Inn’s owners have turned the place into more than just a comfortable motel — it is a great Theodore Roosevelt museum onto itself, with hundreds of photos, documents and artifacts lining the walls throughout the motel. We spent more than an hour just looking at the display before supper at Outlaws’ Bar and Grill in downtown Watford City, a great small-town restaurant whose menu includes a 54-ounce “long-bone ribeye steak” (allow 45 minutes for cooking, the menu says).

We awoke early in the Roosevelt Inn the next morning and wandered backroads to Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, some 30 miles south, where we spent the daylight hours setting up camp, hiking, reading, gathering firewood, snacking, taking pictures and just absorbing the Bad Lands experience, the sky as blue as blue can get, the ground covered with a blindingly white blanket of snow, about 6 inches deep, decorated by meandering tracks of river-bottom deer and the THUMP thump thump pattern of jackrabbit tracks heading toward the tasty bark of creekside willows.

In all the hours we were there, about the only sound we heard was a rancher feeding cattle with his loader late in the afternoon. Winter birds were scarce, perhaps already hunkering down as the barometer dropped in advance of the oncoming storm.

I had hoped to see a shrike, a bird Lillian had introduced me to on our first winter visit there together almost 15 years ago. The shrike that flew by us that day, Lillian explained to me, was probably looking for a field mouse which, if successful, it would likely impale on the government-built barbed wire fence or a sharp twig in one of the ancient junipers as a sort of “cache,” to which it could return again and again for small bits of flesh to sustain it on cold winter nights.

No such luck on this trip. We had to settle for some crows (a distant shrike relative), a few flocks of sharptails and two golden eagles floating high above us on thermals, looking for their own food source, perhaps one of those jackrabbits that left their tracks in the snow.

Lillian setting up our campsite beside the Little Missouri.
Lillian setting up our campsite beside the Little Missouri.

After setting up camp on the frozen Little Missouri riverbank, we enjoyed a short sliding hike on the snow-covered river before I decided it was time to gather firewood for the coming chilly night, and Lillian set off on her own on the ice into the Bad Lands, as she often does, to clear her mind and collect her thoughts and sink deep into the soul-refreshing place she’s called the “center of her universe” since her childhood days on the family ranch on Deep Creek, a Little Missouri tributary a hundred or so miles south of here.

Firewood gathered (not enough, as it turned out later, leading to an early bedtime as the fire ebbed), I sat down with a small glass of wine and my book of choice for the trip, Bernd Heinrich’s “Ravens in Winter,” in perfect sunlight, the temperature hovering just below freezing but with no wind, making it wonderfully comfortable for an hour of reading as the sun sank slowly behind me and lengthening Bad Lands shadows danced on the snow-dusted buttes across the river from me.

Heinrich’s book is a delight, even though you’ll seldom see one of his ravens in western North Dakota — their first cousins, the crows will have to do — and I loved how he reminded this old Norseman in his introduction that, according to Nordic legend, Odin, the lord of the gods, kept a pair of ravens perched on his shoulders.

“They were Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory),” Heinrich wrote, “and he sent them out at dawn to reconnoiter the ends of the earth. At night they returned and whispered into his ear the secrets they had learned … Odin, with his universal knowledge, then advised the other Norse gods.”

Just as the sun was approaching the Bad Lands horizon, Lillian returned with her own secrets, including a tale of a chance encounter with the rancher and his hired men out feeding cows, who must have wondered what on God’s green (now white) earth would a woman be doing out walking alone in the Bad Lands in the middle of no damn place, in the dead of winter. Just to make sure she was OK, the rancher stopped by our campsite on his four-wheeler just before dark, a nice friendly North Dakota gesture.

Supper was some second-time-around thick soup, enough when reheated on our Coleman stove for two bowls each, with breadsticks for dipping and wine for washing it down. There was no finer meal served nor appreciated anywhere in North Dakota that night, I am sure.

The bed Lillian had made for us consisted of four self-inflating air mattresses, two atop two more, covered by a heavy cloth summer sleeping bag for a bottom bedsheet, and for our covers, two unzipped winter sleeping bags providing about 6 inches of down cover against the cold of the night, which turned out to be only in the low teens.

We slept like babies, but at 5 a.m., Lillian shook me and said she simply could not lay there any longer, wanting to get up and see what the day in the Bad Lands — Christmas Eve day — was to bring us.

It first brought us hot coffee, which should have cleared our heads and the sky above us, but it turned out a heavy ice-fog had moved into the valley of the Little Missouri River, and it followed us all the way to town where we had a hot breakfast.

I hesitate to end the story of this great trip on a sour note, but I’d be remiss if I left you thinking all was rosy in the Bad Lands that day.

There are many threats to our Bad Lands, and on Christmas Eve Day 2016, the sky just north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was blackened by a huge plume of thick dark smoke, coming from the site where the Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. had recently spilled nearly 200,000 gallons of crude oil into Ash Coulee Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri. We drove toward it and found the smoke was from the cleanup of the spill. They had set the land and the creek afire, as their way of removing the oil which had not already sunk into the ground or been trapped beneath the ice.

Smoke from the oil burning in Ash Coulee Creek on Dec. 24, 2016. The site is about nine miles north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit.
Smoke from the oil burning in Ash Coulee Creek on Dec. 24, 2016. The site is about nine miles north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit.

It was an ignominious end to what had been an otherwise marvelous pre-Christmas adventure, and as we sat atop the hill above burning Ash Coulee Creek, watching the most unlikely, almost unearthly, of all possible scenes spread out before us, we were reminded of the words of the great Roosevelt himself, our Conservation President, who wrote, more than a hundred years ago:

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

What would Theodore Roosevelt think, we wondered, if he were here to witness this scene? What would he think of us, as Americans, for letting it come to this? We have not done as he instructed. That was evident, watching the story of this massive environmental blunder unfold before us. This would make him sad. Well, shame on us.

How much longer we will be able to enjoy the beauty and solitude of the Little Missouri River valley, as Lillian and I had just done, depends, I think, on our willingness to do as Roosevelt said:

Inquire Seriously. Starting now.

TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — Mni Wiconi, Water is Life

Without water, this planet would be uninhabitable. Without protecting our natural resources, our planet will be uninhabitable. As the polar ice cap (a major source of all water on earth) recedes, water levels will rise dramatically.

With all of the activity at Standing Rock in North Dakota, the actual focus of tribal intent is being lost. The Native Americans aren’t protesting because they have nothing better to do. They protest because they are defending their last frontier. The white man seized most of their ancestral lands and then ignored their sovereignty, took away their buffalo, then placed confined the nomads to the reservations and wanted them to farm.

Farming requires water. Life requires water. Water can be polluted … and finally the tribes have brought the issue into focus. The problem, as I see it, is that the focus has not been kept on water — but has shifted to the protectors vs. law enforcement. In the process, the purpose of the gathering has been lost.

There’s too much going on at Standing Rock for intelligent discussion by one who is not there. Needless to say, reports in the electronic media — including social media — are full of inaccurate and downright false reports, regardless of your views on the subject.

It’s difficult to figure out which reports are true, which are partially true and which are downright false.

Let there be no doubt that the governmental leadership in North Dakota on this issue is nonexistent. Colorful Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., walked the pipeline and proudly proclaimed (surrounded by his security) that the pipeline will proceed. At least, he actually went to the site … unlike Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven and Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who have steered clear of the issue.

Last Friday, the news agency Reuters reported that a Sunoco gas pipeline ruptured in Lycoming County in Pennsylvania. It spilled 55,000 gallons of gasoline into a tributary of the Susquehanna River. The pipeline company noticed a decrease in pressure and sent emergency crews to the area, along with several governmental agencies, but they couldn’t address the problem immediately because of flooding from recent rains. They did shut the pipeline down … and more problems developed.

Sunoco is the same pipeline company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline that crosses North Dakota.

Reuters’ analysis shows Sunoco has had more accidental releases than any other operator, 200 since 2010. “Releases” are leaks, folks. That’s what the focus at DAPL should be on: looming safety issues.

We have floods in North Dakota, too. What happened with the pipeline in Pennsylvania could happen here. Oil and gas -— both pollute when they leak.

Ask yourself: What would happen to a pipeline if there was an earthquake? Yes, we’ve had them in North Dakota … not as many as Oklahoma, which has a different geological structure, but they do occur here. What then? Multiple breaks, explosions. Who knows? It’s not as if natural disasters do not occur.

Are there ways to monitor the flow? Yes. Are there ways to detect where the leaks occur? Yes. Are there ways to prevent the flow “after” the leak is detected? Yes.

Can there be damage control “before” the leak is located? No.

Once a leak has been found, and assuming it is repaired, the real work begins. This, again, raises issue of our environment.

The Forum’s Amy Dalrymple — more than a year ago (Sept. 26, 2015) — described the horrors (my term) of the enormous North Dakota oil spill near Tioga; 20,600 barrels of petroleum spilled on farmland there in 2013. At the time of her article — already two years after the spill at the time of publication — giant piles of soil determined the cleanup’s progress. The larger contained contaminated soil; the other, clean soil. Today, the dirty piles are still much bigger than the soil that has been restored. The work is not nearly complete.

Now let’s assume a flood. Further assume that where the flooding occurred, one or more pipelines breaks. If they can’t be repaired while the river is flooding, just imagine the water pollution that would take place.

Go one step further. Imagine the break and the flood are above an aquifer that is the sole source of water for— hmm, maybe for a reservation or a rural water system.

I’m not trying to be a fear monger here. I recognize the tribes have a vested interest in this issue. The potential problems are real, not imagined. Sure, emergency crews can use skimmers and other means to limit the scope the pollution, but when the damage is done, it is done.

Can the damage be undone? If an aquifer is polluted, the water supply is done. If it flows down rivers or lakes, water purifiers do no good; wildlife and lands are destroyed.

And for how long?

Well, ask the folks in Louisiana, who are still dealing with losses and pollution years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest oil spill in history.

As the pipelines cross or border rivers, lakes and aquifers, the dangers exist. The company behind DAPL has been shown to be America’s champion leak leader.

Still think this is only a Native American problem? I think not. Once a major city, or even a smaller one, loses its water supply, all hell will break loose. Then, at last, our government just might finally focus on the problem. Regulation will be a must! Studying the potential impact of the pipeline disasters will become a must!

It already is.

I read a neat post that suggested that instead of a pipeline, North Dakota should invest in refineries. Of course, that would take forethought, and we’d have to get the state’s politicians off their duffs to explore the options.

Courts can rule. Governments can intervene. But is either truly a solution? How about a timeout to really study the issue? The oil isn’t going anywhere. The oil companies will never abandon North Dakota as long as the oil is here. The people — ALL the people — need to be assured that our natural resources, particularly water, are protected and preserved.

The Native Americans have it right. There is a problem. Unlawful activities will not help to bring about resolution, but peaceful protest cannot hurt. I urge our North Dakota and federal leaders to confer with their Native American counterparts to bring about a peaceful resolution. The clock is ticking. Violence that can’t be undone seems right around the corner. Those of us who are impacted — that would be ALL of us — need to see fast action to peacefully resolve these issues. Standing Rock today … Fargo-Moorhead tomorrow.

On another subject, join me in praying for the national election to be over soon so that friendships can be restored. Amen.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A Collaborative Approach To Regulating The Oil Industry — Yeah, Right

In North Dakota, if you’re an oil field company and you violate laws or regulations, you sometimes get fined for your misdeeds. Sometimes, the fines are as much as $200,000. Sometimes, they’re only $50,000 or $10,000.

No matter. No one ever pays them. Because the philosophy of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, and its chairman, Jack Dalrymple, our state’s governor, is “let them off with a warning.” So if a fine is ever actually levied (often they are completely suspended), the violating company pays only 10 percent of the amount fined. The other 90 percent is that “warning.”

In the words of Dalrymple’s chief “enforcer,” Lynn Helms, director of the Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division, “We can hold a large suspended penalty over their heads for one to five years and they agree to pay immediately with no court process if they violate again. We don’t see much recidivism this way.”

Indeed, a reporter for the Center for Effective Government wrote last year:

“It turns out that it is a common practice for state regulators to collect only 10 percent of the original fine, suspending the remaining 90 percent for a year. If the company does not commit the same violation during that time, the remaining fine is forgiven. Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, told The New York Times that this is part of a “collaborative approach” to regulating drilling. He believes it provides an incentive for industries to improve their practices and fosters a trusting relationship between industry and regulators.”

Maybe a little too “collaborative.” Maye a little too “trusting.” Helms says if you violate again you’ll face the consequences. Except no one ever does. Face the consequences, that is.

Take Oasis Petroleum, for example. Please. Take them. Far away. They’ve been all over the news this week. Oasis Petroleum has “killed” an oil well that blew out last week, spreading an oily mist over the White Earth River, which runs into Lake Sakakawea. The blowout released more than 100,000 gallons of oil and more than 75,000 gallons of poisonous saltwater brine before it was brought under control.

State Health Department officials are on the scene this week assessing the damage to surrounding land, the river and aquatic species and watching carefully to see if any of the brine or oil reaches Lake Sakakawea, from which much of western North Dakota draws its drinking water.

According to a Reuters news story, a light sheen of oil was spotted on the White Earth River, and at least 16 absorbent booms had been installed in an attempt to keep the oil from moving downstream toward the lake.

That’s the news today. Let’s talk about that “recidivism” Helms mentioned earlier. Here’s the news for the last year or so.

September 2014:   The North Dakota Health Department reported an oil and frac water spill at an Oasis Petroleum well site 11 miles northeast of White Earth in Mountrail County (about 25 miles from the incident reported this week). One hundred and twenty-five gallons of oil and 15,000 gallons of frac water were released due to a tank overflow.  Here’s the North Dakota Health Department’s Environmental Incident Report.

October 2014:  A well site owned by Oasis Petroleum in western North Dakota released 31,000 gallons of brine, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. The spill occurred 11 miles northwest of Arnegard, in McKenzie County. Oasis said the leak was the result of a corroded pipe connection. Release of production water ran off location and down a grassed ravine to a tributary of Timber Creek, which runs into Lake Sakakawea, from which much of western North Dakota draws its drinking water. The Health Department determined that groundwater was significantly impacted by the salt brine as well. Here’s the North Dakota Health Department’s Environmental Incident Report.

December 2014:  The North Dakota Health Department reported a spill at a saltwater disposal well owned by Oasis Petroleum north of Powers Lake in Burke Count. Almost 4,000 gallons of oil and more than 20,000 gallons of saltwater were released as the result of an equipment malfunction. According to the Health Department, the oil and brine were sucked up, and contaminated soil disposed at solid waste disposal. Here’s the North Dakota Health Department’s Environmental Incident Report.

January 2015:  The North Dakota Department of Health reported that more than 20,000 gallons of oil and nearly 15,000 gallons of brine were released from a well owned by Oasis Petroleum in western Williams County as a result of a tank overflow. The Department reported that spray was visible to the southeast onto a tilled field, extending  a distance of more than 500 feet. The department said in its incident report “Area reported (by Oasis) as impacted appears to be underestimated.” Wow, that’s a surprise. Who would have suspected that? Here’s the North Dakota Health Department’s Environmental Incident Report.

March 2015: The North Dakota Department of Health reported more than 15,000 gallons of brine leaked from a pipeline owned by Oasis Petroleum in Burke County. There’s a very sketchy Environmental Incident Report that says the brine reached a nearby slough and the oil company was pumping the slough dry to get rid of the brine.

May 2015:  The North Dakota Department of Health reported more than 45,000 gallons of saltwater leaked from a pipeline owned by Oasis Petroleum in northwest North Dakota near Powers Lake and that some of it reached Schmisek Lake via a tributary. A Health Department investigator visiting the site a few days after the leak occurred reported that crews were working throughout the Smishek Lake tributary with vacuum trucks on location “dewatering the creek.”


Fish samples were taken from Schmisek Lake to determine if there were any impacts to fish. The lake is a well-known local fishery for walleyes, perch and pike. The department reported 15 fish samples were taken — five northern pike, five yellow perch, two bluegill and three walleye. The samples were frozen and shipped to a qualified lab. There are no results from the lab tests on the Health Department’s website. I’ve asked the North Dakota Game and Fish Department if there has been any follow-up but have not heard back from them yet. Here’s the North Dakota Health Department’s Environmental Incident Report. This one actually made national news, contributing to North Dakota’s national reputation. Here’s a story from the Seattle Times. You know if we’re not careful, some big television stars are gonna start taking after us.

And then there‘s this:

January 2015: Two employees of Riverside Welding, based in Williston, were badly burned at an Oasis Petroleum well site near Ross in Mountrail County. The men, Kyle Stipcich, 27, and Jonathan Henderson, 30, were working inside an oil treater when it caught fire. Jenni Dale of the Mountrail Sheriff’s Department said in a statement, “Henderson was reported to have jumped into a snowbank to extinguish the flames, and Stipcich was put out by three individuals that were nearby.” Stipcich was burned on the lower half of his body, and Henderson was extensively burned on his upper body, including his face and head. Both men were wearing flame-resistant clothing at the time. Henderson was admitted to Trinity Hospital in Minot and Stipcich was flown to the Regions Hospital burn unit in St. Paul. I don’t have any information on their conditions today. I hope they are recovering.

So, Jack, and Lynn, how’s that “recidivism” thing working out? That “collaborative approach?”

I didn’t go back any further than last September in the Health Department’s records, but anybody want to bet that the Oasis record for the previous year was just as bad? And the one before that?

One thing I did learn is that on the Health Department’s website, under the category “Oilfield incidents that occurred within the last 12 months which were not contained,” Oasis was responsible for every single incident in which the amount spilled was more than 500 barrels. Every major spill was an Oasis spill. And I can’t find any evidence that Oasis ever paid a fine. Ever. Maybe I just don’t know where to look.

Oasis is a bad actor, but they’re just one of many bad actors in the oil field. Do you think, maybe, a little enforcement might help?

Footnote: I did a little Google search as part of my research for this story, and I found some interesting websites you might want to take a look at.

  • A website called Bakken.com actually maintains an Oasis Petroleum Archives page. And it’s got a lot of stories about Oasis spills.
  • There’s a website called Oil Spill Daily that reports on — you guessed it — Oil Spills. Daily. North Dakota makes the front page pretty frequently.
  • And one of my favorites, a site called “No Fracking Way,” which keeps a list of what it calls “Frackastrophes.”

Somebody out there is watching. It‘s just not the North Dakota state regulators —  or the North Dakota news media.