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Oil Transportation and Accidents by Rail

Lac-Mégantic train explosion on July 6, 2013.  Photo by TSB of Canada.

Lac-Mégantic train explosion on July 6, 2013. Photo by Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

On July 5, 2013, the lone engineer of a Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA) train arrived in Nantes, Quebec, set both the hand and air brakes, finished up his paperwork. He then left the train parked on the main line for the night, unattended atop a long grade. Five locomotives were pulling 72 tanker cars of oil, each containing 30,000 gallons of volatile crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation. During the night, the lead locomotive caught fire, so the emergency responders cut off the engine, as per protocol.  However, that action led to a loss of pressure of the air brakes.  The hand brakes (which were supposed to have been sufficient by themselves) failed, and the train began to run away. By the time it reached Lac-Mégantic early the next morning, the unattended cars were traveling 65 mph.  When the train reached the center of town, 63 tank cars derailed and many of those exploded, tragically killing 47 people in a blaze that took over two days to extinguish.

With that event came a heightened awareness of the risks of transporting volatile petroleum products by rail.  A derailment happened on a BNSF line near Casselton, North Dakota on December 30, 2013. This train was then struck by a train on an adjacent track, igniting another huge fireball, although this one was luckily just outside of town.  On April 30, 2014, a CSX train derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, setting the James River on fire, narrowly avoiding the dense downtown area of the city of 75,000 people.


North American petroleum transportation by rail. Click on the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner to access the full screen map with additional tools and description.

Regulators in the US and Canada are scrambling to keep up.  DOT-111 tank cars were involved in all of these incidents, and regulators seek to phase them out over the next two years. These cars account for 69% of the fleet of tank cars in the US, however, and up to 80% in Canada.  Replacing these cars will be a tough task in the midst of the oil booms in the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays, which have seen crude by rail shipments increase from less than 5,000 cars in 2006 to over 400,000 cars in 2013.

This article is the first of several reports by the FracTracker Alliance highlighting safety and environmental concerns about shipping petroleum and related products by rail. The impacts of the oil and gas extraction industry do not end at the wellhead, but are a part of a larger system of refineries, power plants, and terminals that span the continent.

Oil Drilling’s Impact on ND Communities

By Thomas DiPaolo, 2013 GIS Intern, FracTracker Alliance

ND Shale Viewer

ND Shale Viewer

Out of North Dakota’s 53 counties, 19 are responsible for producing the oil and natural gas that has brought the state so much prosperity and attention. It’s the latest get-rich-quick scheme, and one that works better than that name would suggest: drive to North Dakota, work in the oil fields for six months, and go home with enough money to find something more permanent. This means that some of the quiet towns overlying the Bakken formation are exploding in size, and many of their new residents lack any connection to these communities when they’re off duty. In the past, similar population booms have been tied to a corresponding increase in crime rates and drug usage, and FracTracker Alliance has examined the available data to find out how much life has changed in North Dakota since the oil started to flow.

Housing Availability

There’s a reason why the you have to drive to North Dakota if you want to stay in the black, and it helps if you’ve got a comfortable car.

Perhaps the biggest problem here, perhaps a cause of others, is that there is simply not enough housing for everyone who wants to work in North Dakota. Trailer parks pack every available inch of space for families from out of state prepared to settle in, becoming themselves towns in miniature, and one of the benefits to consider when working for one oil drilling company over another is to find out which ones are constructing dedicated worker housing and amenities. Familiarity doesn’t fail to breed contempt; demand for living space is so high, in fact, that families who have lived in these towns their whole lives are being forced out as rent prices rise without end. Meanwhile, many have taken to simply sleeping in their cars, and tensions have grown as stores forbid them from parking overnight in their lots.

Crime

With the number of people moving into the state to work in the oil fields, or in industries that support them, North Dakota’s population reached 699,628 in 2012, a jump from the 642,200 people of 2000. More people, of course, means greater effort required to keep the peace – The number of law enforcement officers accordingly jumped from 967 in 2000 to 1,253 in 2012. At first glance, one might think that did the job, since the crime rate fell from 2,203 index crimes1 reported per 100,000 people to 2,122 per 100,000 people, and the number of arrests per officer stayed constant (3.1 in 2000, 3.0 in 2012). That conclusion doesn’t hold up well when you look at how crime has fluctuated within the oil-producing counties.2 The population there has risen to 183,940 people, from just 167,515 people in 2000, and it currently employs 379 law enforcement officers, up from 250 officers. In 2000 the crime rate was already in excess of the state average at 1,582 index crimes reported per 100,000 people and 8.3 arrests per law enforcement officer. By 2012, those figures reached 1,629 crimes per 100,000 people and 12.8 arrests per officer. With only a quarter of the state’s population, the crime rate is three-quarters of the state average. This upswell applies especially to violent crimes. Violent crime reports, numbered at 558 statewide in 2000, nearly tripled to 1,445 in 2012; in the oil counties, they more than tripled from 103 to 363 crimes reported. That number carries through in the crime rate figures; statewide, 206.5 violent crimes occurred per 100,000 people in 2012, while only 86.9 crimes were reported per 100,000 people in 2000; in the oil counties, 197.3 violent crimes were reported per 100,000 people in 2012, compared to only 61.5 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2000. See Table 1 for a comparison of total and violent crimes between the year 2000 and the year 2012.

Table 1. Crime rates per 100,000 people in North Dakota (2000 vs. 2012)

Total Index Crimes Violent Crimes
Statewide Oil Counties Statewide Oil Counties
2000 2,203 1,582 86.9 61.5
2012 2,122 1,629 206.5 197.3

Where the line blurs is in addressing property crime. Until 2009, there had been a steady decline in the rate of property crime. Since then, however, it has been increasing every year, even if the 2012 figures are still beneath those of 2000. Statewide, the number of property crimes hovered at 13,592 reported crimes in 2000 and 13,402 in 2012, while in the oil counties they rose slightly from 2,547 property crimes in 2000 to 2,634 crimes in 2012. At the same time, the property crime rates fell both statewide (2,116 crimes per 100,000 people to 1,916 per 100,000 people) and in the oil counties (1,529 crimes per 100,000 people to 1,486 per 1000,000 people).

Prostitution

When you have that many single young men together, as so many of the oil field workers are, a market inevitably springs up for very particular crimes. Prostitution stings consume a greater quantity of police time than ever before, with some ND counties reporting their first prostitution arrests ever. In many cases, the suspects in these cases demonstrate a similar attitude to the oil workers they court: stay for a brief period (typically days rather than months), make enough money to support themselves, and keep going out of town. Officers often say that these cases are risky, as they require enough evidence to prove the intent of both parties to exchange money for sex. Without an undercover officer to carry out a sting, many cases could be accused of discrimination, especially in cases where race may be an issue. In other situations, sting operations have provided evidence of drug activity in addition to prostitution.

Drug Use

Juvenile Alcohol Use

In addition to the oil boom, North Dakota has the uncomfortable claim of being one of the nation’s leaders when it comes to binge drinking. It’s notable then to see that, while juvenile3 alcohol use has fallen drastically across the board, juveniles are developing more permissive attitudes towards alcohol use. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of juveniles who reported using alcohol within the previous month fell from 18,000 to 7,000, and it fell from 11,000 to 4,000 juveniles in regards to binge drinking4 on a weekly basis. At the same time, the number of juveniles showing signs of alcohol dependence or abuse fell from 6,000 to 2,000, and those described as needing but not receiving treatment for alcohol abuse fell from 5,000 to 2,000. Yet only 17,000 juveniles reported perceiving great risk from said binge drinking in 2011, where 22,000 had reported perceiving great risk in 2000. Why are more juveniles rejecting personal alcohol use while becoming less concerned with others’ usage?

Adult Drug & Alcohol Use

Whatever the reason, adult alcohol usage has demonstrated the opposite trend: more people are drinking but fewer enjoy it. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of adults using alcohol monthly rose from 286,000 to 320,000, and those binge drinking weekly rose from 144,000 to 165,000. The number of adults perceiving great risk from weekly binge drinking also rose from 173,000 to 183,000, but the number with signs of alcohol dependence or abuse rose from 33,000 to 47,000. Interestingly, the number of adults described as needing but not receiving treatment for alcohol use has barely changed in this time; 46,000 adults were characterized this way in 2000, as opposed to 45,000 of them in 2011.

Smoking and Marijuana Use

The one trend shared between both juveniles and adults is a steady increase in the number of people expressing permissive attitudes towards the use of marijuana. In 2000, 4,000 juveniles and 13,000 adults reported using marijuana within the previous month; by 2011, only 2,000 juveniles reported using marijuana within the previous month, but the number of adults doing so had jumped to 23,000. At that time, only 17,000 juveniles and 171,000 adults reported perceiving great risk from the use of marijuana on a monthly basis, down from 25,000 and 213,000 respectively in 2000. These figures come at a time when other forms of smoking are becoming less popular across the U.S. In 2000 in ND, 16,000 juveniles were using tobacco products on a monthly basis, and 13,000 were using cigarettes specifically; those numbers had fallen to 6,000 and 5,000 juveniles respectively by 2000. Even among adults there were small declines over this time period: 154,000 adults were using tobacco monthly in 2011 as opposed to 161,000 in 2000, and 121,000 adults as opposed to 128,000 were using cigarettes. And while the number of juveniles perceiving great risk from pack-a-day smoking fell from 38,000 to 32,000 between 2000 and 2011, while 346,000 adults perceived great risk from it in 2011, as opposed to 315,000 in 2000.


Footnotes

  1. According to the Crime and Homicide Reports of the North Dakota Attorney General’s office, index crimes are reported to the National Uniform Crime Reporting program managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in order to broadly describe the level of criminal activity around the country. They are divided into two categories, violent and property-related. The violent index crimes tracked by North Dakota are murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The property index crimes tracked by the state are burglary, larceny and theft, and motor vehicle theft.
  2. The North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties lists the following counties as its members: Adams, Billings, Bottineau, Bowman, Burke, Divide, Dunn, Golden Valley, Hettinger, McHenry, McKenzie, McLean, Mercer, Mountrail, Renville, Slope, Stark, Ward, and Williams.
  3. The National Surveys on Drug Use and Health define a “juvenile” as any person between the ages of 12 and 17 years, and an adult as any person aged 18 years or older.
  4. The National Surveys on Drug Use and Health define “binge drinking” as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting.
North Dakota Bakken Gas Flares

Gas Flaring and Venting: Data Availability and New Methods for Oversight

By Samir Lakhani, GIS Intern, FracTracker Alliance

In the hazy world of gas flaring and venting, finding worthwhile data often leads one to a dead end. Although the Energy Information Administration (EIA) holds the authority to require active oil/gas companies to disclose this data, they choose not to. EIA will not proceed with such actions because, “…assessing the volume of natural gas vented and flared would add significant reporting burdens to natural gas producers causing them substantial investments.” Additionally, the EIA is not confident that oil/gas producing companies have the capability to accurately estimate their own emissions from venting or flaring activities.

Piece-Meal

Some states do voluntarily submit their estimates, but only 8 of the nation’s 32 oil and gas producing states submit their data. This makes attempts for national estimates incomplete and inaccurate. State officials have repeatedly complained that the EIA has provided them with insufficient guidelines as to how the data should be submitted, and in what format. It appears the only way that concerned parties are able to monitor this practice is with satellite imagery from the sky, to literally watch flaring as it occurs.

Bird’s Eye View

The Bakken Shale Formation has received a considerable amount of attention. We’ve all seen the nighttime satellite images of North Dakota, where a normally quiet portion of the state light up like a bustling city. It is to be understood that not all the lights in this region are gas flares. Much of it is emergency lighting and temporary housing associated with drilling companies.

There are a few obvious issues with satellite surveillance. Firstly, it is difficult to monitor venting emissions from a bird’s eye perspective. Venting is the process by which unsought gas is purposely wafted from drill sites into the atmosphere. Venting is a much more environmentally costly decision compared to the ignited alternative, as pure natural gas is twenty times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. To monitor venting behavior, from up high, Infrared sensors must be used. Unfortunately, these emissions do not transmit well through the atmosphere. Proper detection must be made much closer to earth’s surface, perhaps from an airplane or on the ground. Secondly, flaring is almost impossible to detect during the day using satellites. One could equate it to attempting to see a flashlight’s beam when the sun is out. Lastly, when the time comes to churn out an estimate on how much gas is really being wasted—the statistics vary wildly.

Using SkyTruth’s satellite image, and GIS data retrieved from North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, it is now possible to pinpoint North Dakota’s most active gas flaring sites. Using this, more accurate estimates are now within reach. North Dakota gas drillers may flare their “associated” gas for up to one year. However, Officials at Mineral Management Service claim that it is not difficult to get an extension, due to economic hardship. There are always instances of gas/oil operators flaring or venting without authorization. In 2003, Shell paid a 49 million dollar settlement over an unnoticed gas flaring and venting operation that lasted several years. The beauty of satellite imagery and GIS detail is the observer’s ability to pinpoint flaring operations and by referencing the leases, evaluate whether or not such practices were authorized.

This map shows flaring activity in the Bakken Formation from January 1 through June 30, 2013. Please click the “Fullscreen” icon in the upper right hand corner to access the full set of map controls.

Regulation and Control

If flaring and venting are costly to the environment and result in a loss of company product (methane), you may ask why these practices are still conducted. Flaring and venting practices are cheaper than building the infrastructure necessary to harness this energy, unfortunately. To effectively collect this resource, a serious piping network is needed. It is as if a solar farm has been built in the desert, but there is no grid to take this power to homes. To lay down piping is an expensive endeavor, and it requires continuous repairs and on-site monitors. Even when North Dakota burns over 30% of their usable product, there is little initiative to invest in long term savings. A second method, called “green completions”, is becoming a more popular choice for oil and gas companies. A green completion is a portable refinery and condensate tank aimed to recover more than half of excess methane produced from drilling. Green completions are the best management practice of today, and the EPA wishes to implement green completion technology nationwide by 2015.

The best way to estimate gas flare and venting emissions is through submissions from gas/oil companies and to analyze the data using GIS applications. Concerned organizations and citizens should not have to rely on satellite services to watch over the towering infernos. There is new research coming out each day on adverse health effects from living in close proximity to a gas flare and vent. It releases a corrosive mixture of chemicals, and returns to the earth as acid rain. Please refer to this publication for a thorough assessment of possible health effects.

This issue is not limited to US borders only; flaring has wreaked havoc in South America, Russia, Africa, and the Middle-East. During the extraction of oil, gas may return to the surface. In many of these areas where oil drilling is prevalent, there are no well-developed gas markets and pipeline infrastructure, which makes venting and flaring a more attractive way to dispose of an unintentionally extracted resource. If the US were to make substantial changes to the way we monitor, regulate, and reduce gas flaring/venting, and accessibility to data, we would set the standard on an international level. Such policy changes include: carbon taxation, streamlining the leasing process (Many oil/gas officials despise the leasing applications for pipelines), installing flaring/venting meters and controls, and tax incentives (to flare and green complete, rather than vent).

All of these changes would tremendously reduce and regulate gas flaring in the US, but without accurate and comprehensive data these proposed policies are meaningless. Data is, and forever will be, the diving board on which policy and change is founded.


Special thanks to Paul Woods and Yolandita Franklin of Skytruth, for using VIIRS and IR technologies to compile the data for the above map.

North Dakota shale viewer

Exploring North Dakota’s Bakken Formation on FracMapper

A new North Dakota map is now available on FracTracker. It joins content from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia in our efforts to make data concerning mineral extraction from shale more accessible and understandable.


In this embedded view of the North Dakota map, users can pan and zoom. For full featured control, click the expanding arrows icon (top right of map) to access the map directly.

The area drawn in yellow in the western portion of the state is a generalized layer of activity for the Bakken formation. It was created to help with map performance and accuracy at scales ranging from statewide to 1:750,000, or about the size of a county. Once you zoom in beyond that level, the generalized layer goes away, and some interesting content becomes available.


A screen capture of the North Dakota map
In the screen capture above, I zoomed in past 1:750,000, so the producing wells are visible, as well as a layer of horizontal laterals that are associated with the wells, a feature that few states make available.  The location was chosen at random from the Bakken region, however, if you would like to see a similar view, click the “Search” tool and then type “New Town, ND” into the text box.  I have also changed the basemap to show a satellite image by selecting “Imagery with Labels” from the base map selector.


Close up of “Mamba 1-20H” well

Each feature, or item on the map, has different data associated with it.  I’ve clicked on a well at random to bring up the data pop up box.  Because the data is controlled at the state level, there are often substantial differences in the types of data that are available.  In North Dakota, we can see the cumulative total of oil, gas, and waste water production by scrolling through these pop up boxes.  Units of measure are not provided, but they are assumed to be barrels for oil and waste water, and thousands of cubic feet (Mcf) for gas.

At the very top of that box, there is a gray bar with the text “(1 of 3)”.  This means that multiple features are selected.  Viewers can scroll through them by clicking the arrow icon on the gray bar.  Viewers can reduce the number of selected items by zooming in and making layers inactive.  To change the layers, just click on “Layers” in the main toolbar, and click the checkboxes next to each layer to select or de-select the various available choices.  Please recall that some layers are scale dependent, so they are not available at all times.

For more information about the Bakken formation and the layers available on the map, please click the “About” icon on the main toolbar.

 

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