Tag Archives: crude

Study: North Dakota pipelines average 4 spills per year

Pipelines in North Dakota have spilled crude oil and other hazardous liquids at least 85 times since 1996, according to an analysis released today by the Center for Biological Diversity. These 85 spills — an average of four a year — caused more than $40 million in property damage, according to the data compiled from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The analysis follows the recent decision by the Obama administration not to grant the Dakota Access pipeline an easement for construction under Lake Oahe.

After months of peaceful protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will undertake a review of alternate routes for the pipeline.

“Pipeline leaks are common and incredibly dangerous, and the Dakota Access pipeline will threaten every community it cuts through,” said the center’s Randi Spivak. “This pipeline wasn’t considered safe for the residents of Bismarck. It is equally unsafe for the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux. The Army Corps should not be putting anyone’s water supply at risk.”

Energy Transfer Partners, the conglomerate behind the controversial Dakota Access project, has a questionable safety record. The company has been responsible for 29 pipeline safety incidents since 2006, in which 9,555 barrels of hazardous liquids were spilled.

The standoff over the Dakota Access pipeline has united indigenous people across the globe in an unprecedented show of solidarity. Thousands have come to show their support. In response local police have militarized the situation, firing rubber bullets and showering protesters with water in freezing temperatures.

A 2013 study reveals a deeply troubling history of pipeline accidents in the United States. This independent analysis of federal records found that since 1986, oil and gas pipeline leaks, spills and other safety incidents have resulted in nearly $7 billion in damages, more than 2,000 injuries and more than 500 deaths.

A time-lapse video documents significant pipeline” incidents in the continental United States — along with their human and financial costs — from 1986 through May 2013.

On average one significant pipeline incident occurred in the country every 30 hours, according to the data.

“We expect the Corps to conduct a full oil-spill risk analysis for every river crossing along the entire route of the Dakota Access project,” Spivak said in a statement to the press. “Spills are a fact of life when pipelines fail — and that puts water, wildlife and people directly in harm’s way.”


Enbridge dropping plans for Sandpiper crude oil project

Enbridge Energy notified the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission early this month that the company won’t pursue the regulatory approvals needed for the $2.6 billion Sandpiper pipeline project.

The pipeline project which would have carried North Dakota light crude across Minnesota to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior, Wisconsin.

Company officials cited market conditions and other factors.

And an important note: the project is not dead and could be revived.

Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge said back in February that it expected to push the startup date for Sandpiper back until 2019 because of the need for an environmental review.

This summer, Enbridge said it was investing in a different pipeline that would transport North Dakota crude south to Texas, and that it would re-evaluate Sandpiper once that deal was done.

Enbridge Energy Partners president Mark Maki told reporters that “unprecedented regulatory delays had plagued the project.”

While Sandpiper faced regulatory delays, Maki said, “I don’t place the blame on anyone’s doorstep.”

Environmentalists contended Sandpiper would threaten ecologically sensitive areas.

Late last year, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ordered a full environmental impact review of Sandpiper. Enbridge has said the state’s regulatory process was delaying Sandpiper and another project, a replacement pipeline to carry Canadian crude oil across northern Minnesota.

Enbridge and Houston-based Marathon Petroleum, a key partner in Sandpiper, announced in August they are forming a joint venture to buy a stake in the Bakken Pipeline project, which would transport oil from North Dakota across the Midwest to Texas.

Enbridge and Marathon had invested $800 million in Sandpiper, including money for pipeline and regulatory efforts.

Environmental groups and Native American tribes have opposed both Enbridge pipelines in Minnesota, saying if they break they would pollute wild-rice lakes and the Mississippi River headwaters.

Well owned by Exxon Mobil subsidiary suffers blow out

A North Dakota oil well owned by Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy blew out over the weekend, leaking more than 550 barrels of crude, some of which left the wellpad and seeped into surrounding grasses.

The well, located in a rural area 25 miles southeast of Watford City, was being hydraulic fractured when its pressure control valves failed and it leaked the oil and about 110 barrels of saltwater, according to state and company officials.

The well was brought under control a day later.

“We are working to understand the cause,” XTO spokeswoman Suann Guthrie said. “We are very sorry this incident has occurred.”

The company’s emergency response responded to the leak and local officials were notified. XTO said it has begun cleanup at the site.

The well, Deep Creek Federal 43X-5D, is located on the same drilling pad as four other wells and was first drilled on April 25, according to state data.

Wisconsinites sue over rail expansion for crude oil

Days after the fiery derailment of an oil train near Galena, Illinois, nine Wisconsin citizens went to court to challenge an expansion of a rail system for oil trains in their community.

The train had just passed through Wisconsin before the derailment.

Their focus was on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ decision to permit the filling of wetlands and the construction of a bridge by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

A Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report issued in mid-March stated that BNSF executives, mostly from outside Wisconsin, contributed $15,570 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker from 2010 to October 2014. During that period, Walker received more than $128,000 from the railroad industry.

The BNSF project would expand rail lines carrying crude oil through the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

Citizens, represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates, challenged the permitting for the rail expansion, arguing the DNR’s environmental analysis failed to comply with the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act. Plaintiffs are seeking a reversal of the permit.

One of them, Ralph Knudson, was thinking about the Galena derailment the day his group went to court.

“Today’s rail traffic is much riskier than a few years ago,” he said. “The marsh project being considered is one of a series of projects intended to facilitate even more traffic flow. An environmental impact statement would compel a thorough look at all aspects of construction and operation of rail lines for opportunities to minimize risk and protect the marsh environment and public assets.”

Wisconsin law requires state agencies to consider environmental impacts when making decisions, including issuing permits.

But the DNR has changed its regulations and how it complies with the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act. Among the changes was the elimination of the environmental assessment process that was used to document reviews and decisions regarding whether to prepare an environmental impact statement.

“Thorough disclosure and consideration of the full range of environmental impacts makes for better-informed DNR decisions and provides critical information to the public and other decision-makers about the impacts of a project,” said Midwest Environmental Advocates staff attorney Sarah Williams.

The citizens, in their complaint, said the DNR, with its permitting program, didn’t complete an adequate environmental analysis and failed to involve citizens in the La Crosse area with concerns about:

• Noise, vibrations and air pollution with increased train traffic.

• Environmental impact of filling another wetland in the La Crosse River Marsh, already reduced by half its size from previous development.

• The environmental impact of the construction and operation of a second track on the Mississippi River adjacent to and downstream from the marsh.

• Environmental harm and public safety in the event of a derailment.

• The proximity of a bald eagle nest — 600 feet — from railroad tracks.

Following the explosive derailment of at least three trains in as many weeks over the winter, citizens in other regions of the country are raising similar concerns about the rapid rise in the number of oil trains in the United States.

Witnesses from miles away saw the fireball that erupted after the BNSF Railway freight train derailed near Galena in early March. The fire burned for more than a day. Twenty-one of the train’s freight cars left the tracks and five ruptured, catching fire. 

The train derailed in a heavily wooded, hilly area near a Mississippi River tributary. Firefighters used a bike path to reach the site, but pulled back because of the intensity of the flames.

The derailed cars were newer and supposedly safer models, and this fact led to heightened calls for local, state and federal authorities to do more to protect people and the environment.

“As we’ve seen in West Virginia and Ontario, these oil trains pose a massive danger to people, wildlife and our environment, whether its trains passing through heavily populated areas or some of our pristine landscapes,” said Jared Margolis of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental advocacy group. Margolis is the author of the recently released report Runaway Risks. 

In his analysis, he reported that an estimated 25 million people in the United States live within the 1-mile evacuation zone for oil train derailments. He also reported:

• Oil trains routinely pass within a quarter-mile of 3,600 miles of streams and more than 73,000 square miles of lakes, wetlands and reservoirs. 

• Oil trains pass through 34 national wildlife refuges and pass within a quarter-mile of critical habitat for 57 threatened or endangered species.

• Oil train traffic has increased from about 10,000 cars in 2008 to 400,000 cars in 2014.

• Oil trains are expected to haul 40 times more oil in 2015 than in 2005.

• More than 1.1 million barrels of crude oil spilled from oil trains in 2013.

In the Midwest, oil trains transport about 72 percent of the 1 million barrels of crude produced in the North Dakota Bakken fields.

Margolis’ report said BNSF moves as many as 27 oil trains a week through Cook County, Illinois. And up to 15 oil trains a day pass through the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

“Almost all of these oil trains pass through Minnesota into Wisconsin, traveling along the Mississippi River before turning east, often to East Coast oil refineries,” Margolis wrote. “Data show that 30 to 48 dedicated oil trains per week carry Bakken crude into Wisconsin from Minnesota. Three to five of these cross southern Wisconsin on the Canadian Pacific railroad, passing through downtown Milwaukee and turning south along the heavily populated Lake Michigan coast. The rest travel on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad along the east bank of the Mississippi River, through the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.”

The report contains a series of recommendations, including:

• Banning outdated tank cars.

• Amending regulations to require oil-spill response plans for areas where oil trains operate.

• Limiting the length of trains to 30 cars and 4,000 tons.

• Establishing speed limits — less than 20 mph — for oil trains traveling through population centers or within a quarter mile of environmentally sensitive areas.

Still, Margolis said, “the reality is there’s no way to safely transport the highly volatile crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota or the heavy crudes from the Alberta tar sands. Instead, these extreme fossil fuels should be left in the ground.”

Train carrying Bakken oil derails, burns near Galena

A freight train loaded with crude oil derailed in northern Illinois, bursting into flames and prompting officials to suggest that everyone with 1 mile evacuate, authorities said.

The BNSF Railway train derailed Thursday afternoon in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi, according to company spokesman Andy Williams. The train had 103 cars loaded with crude oil, along with two buffer cars loaded with sand. A cause for the derailment hadn’t yet been determined. No injuries were reported.

Only a family of two agreed to leave their home, Galena City Administrator Mark Moran said at a news conference late Thursday, adding that the suggestion to evacuate was prompted by the presence of a propane tank near the derailment.

The derailment occurred 3 miles south of Galena in a wooded and hilly area that is a major tourist attraction and the home of former President Ulysses S. Grant. The Jo Daviess County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the train was transporting oil from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region.

Earlier in the day, Moran said 8 tankers had left the track. But Williams said at the news conference that only six cars derailed, two of which burst into flames and continued to burn into the night.

Firefighters could only access the derailment site by a bike path, said Galena Assistant Fire Chief Bob Conley. They attempted to fight a small fire at the scene but were unable to stop the flames.

Firefighters had to pull back for safety reasons and were allowing the fire to burn itself out, Conley said. In addition to Galena firefighters, emergency and hazardous material responders from Iowa and Wisconsin were at the scene.

The derailment comes amid increased public concern about the safety of shipping crude by train. According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail.

Since 2008, derailments of oil trains in the U.S. and Canada have seen 70,000-gallon tank cars break open and ignite on multiple occasions, resulting in huge fires. A train carrying Bakken crude crashed in a Quebec town in 2013, killing 47 people. Last month, a train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude derailed in a West Virginia snowstorm, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a river tributary and forcing hundreds of families to evacuate.

The ruptures and fires have prompted the administration of President Barack Obama to consider requiring upgrades such as thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections and electronic brakes that could make cars stop simultaneously, rather than slam into each other.

In a statement, the Federal Railroad Administration said it was sending investigators to the Illinois derailment site and that the agency will conduct a “thorough investigation,” to determine the cause.

BNSF spokesman Michael Trevino said railroad employees were on the scene and additional personnel were headed there.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner also put state personnel and equipment at the ready for deployment.

25 years later, Exxon Valdez spill effects linger

Before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, there was the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, at the time the largest oil spill in the U.S.

The 987-foot tanker, carrying 53 million gallons of crude, struck Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m. on March 24, 1989. Within hours, it unleashed an estimated 10.8 million gallons of thick, toxic crude oil into the water. Storms and currents then smeared it over 1,300 miles of shoreline.

For a generation of people around the world, the spill was seared into their memories by images of fouled coastline in Prince William Sound, of sea otters, herring and birds soaked in oil, of workers painstakingly washing crude off the rugged beaches.

Twenty five years later, most of the species have recovered, said Robert Spies, a chief science adviser to governments on the oil spill restoration program from 1989 to 2002. But some wildlife, as well as the people who live in the region, are still struggling.

Here’s a look at what’s changed since the spill:


Bernie Culbertson was preparing to fish cod when the Exxon Valdez ran aground. With oil in the water, fishing came to a standstill and life for he and other fishermen drastically changed.

“The bottom fell out of the price of fish,” he said. Pink salmon that sold for 80 cents per pound fell to 8 cents per pound. Consumers turned to farm fish or tuna out of fear of tainted salmon. His boat caught 2.5 million pounds of pinks one season and lost money.

Culbertson turned to other fisheries, traveling as far as California. Fishing 12 months a year, his marriage failed. Friends couldn’t repay loans and lost boats or homes. Exxon compensation checks, minus what fishermen earned on spill work, arrived too late for many.

The fisheries today are not the same. “The shrimp are slowly, slowly coming back. The crab aren’t back. The herring aren’t back. The salmon are back in abundance,” he said.


At the time of the spill, complacency among government officials and the oil industry had set in after a dozen years of safe shipments, said Mark Swanson, director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council and a former Coast Guard officer.

When the tanker ran aground, for instance, spill response equipment was buried under snow. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. in 1989 had 13 oil skimmers, five miles of boom and storage capacity for 220,000 gallons of spilled oil.

Now, Alyeska has 108 skimmers, 49 miles of boom and on-water storage capacity of almost 38 million gallons. North Slope oil must be transported in double-hull tankers, which must be escorted by two tugs. Radar monitors the vessel’s position as well as that of icebergs.

The company conducts two major spill drills are conducted each year. And nearly 400 local fishing boat owners are trained to deploy and maintain boom.


After the spill, the population of herring crashed. It is now listed as “not recovering.” The silvery fish is a key species because it is eaten by salmon, seabirds and marine mammals from otters to whales. Four years after the spill, the estimated herring population based on modeling shrunk from 120 metric tons to less than 30 metric tons.

How that happened remains a question, said Scott Pegau, research program manager for the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, Alaska.

Here’s what’s known: Adult herring feed on zooplankton, which crashed for three years after the spill. With less to eat, herring may have been more susceptible to disease normally fended off within a herring population.

Herring populations can stabilize at a low or high number, but something has prevented a rebound. Oil likely is no longer a factor, Pegau said.


Responders estimated that as many as 3,000 sea otters died the first year. Hundreds more died in the years after of exposure to oil that persisted in sediment, where otters dig for clams.

Three factors could have had an impact on the otters’ ability to survive. Oiled fur loses insulating value. Otters ingest oil as they groom, and researchers years after the spill found blood chemistry evidence consistent with liver damage. Grooming takes time away from feeding.

“One of the lessons we can take from this is that the chronic effects of oil in the environment can persist for decades,” said Brenda Ballachey, who moved to Alaska a few months after the spill and spent the next summer dissecting sea otter carcasses collected from beaches and frozen.

The U.S. Geological Survey research biologist is the lead author of a federal study released last month that concludes that sea otters have finally returned to pre-spill numbers.


The pigeon guillemot, which looks like a black pigeon with web feet, is one species that has not recovered. Numbers were declining before the spill. An estimated 2,000 to 6,000 guillemots, or 10 to 15 percent of the population in spill areas, died from acute oiling.

Researchers suspect river otters, mink and other predators targeted guillemot eggs as an alternative to foraging on oiled beaches.

Like sea otters and another bird that took years to recover, harlequin ducks, pigeon guillemot’s forage for invertebrates in sediment and likely were affected by lingering oil, said David Irons, a seabirds expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The decline of its other prey, juvenile herring, didn’t help. Numbers continue to decline in both oiled and non-oiled areas. Irons has proposed reducing mink numbers on the heavily oiled Naked Islands, once prime habitat for guillemots, to restore their numbers.