North Dakota man relentless in push for safer oil by rail shipping

Repost from the Billings Gazette
[Editor: This is not a fluffy human interest story, but an important offering on the oil industry and regulators in North Dakota. Significant quote: “‘If you want to fix a problem, you go to the source of the problem,’ he said.  ‘You don’t prepare for something that doesn’t have to happen.’”  Another good quote: “Pressure to make North Dakota crude oil safe for interstate shipment is mounting on several fronts.”– RS]

North Dakota man relentless in push for safer oil by rail shipping

November 02, 2014, by Patrick Springer, Forum News Service
Ron Schalow of Fargo
Ron Schalow of Fargo has been an outspoken advocate of stabilizing Bakken oil to remove volatile gases before it is shipped by rail. | David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO, N.D. — Ron Schalow isn’t bashful about expressing his caustic opinions. He once wrote a book scolding President George W. Bush for failing to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Part of the title can’t be printed here, but the subtitle read, “The 9/11 Leadership Myth.”

More recently, the Fargo man, a frequent writer of letters to the editor, has focused his attention on explosive Bakken crude oil and rail safety – an issue that has drawn national attention after a series of fiery train derailments, including an accident that killed 47 people in Canada and one late last year near Casselton.

Schalow launched a petition drive originally called the “Bomb Train Buck Stops in North Dakota,” which he renamed the “Coalition for Bakken Crude Oil Stabilization,” a reference to the process for removing volatile gases.

Improbable activist

Schalow’s background makes him an improbable activist. His early career was spent managing restaurants and bars, with a stint as a minor league baseball manager.

More recently, he worked for software companies including Microsoft in Fargo, but said he grew weary of corporate culture and office politics and turned to freelance work.

He has assembled a loose network of people concerned about the crude oil stabilization issue, including local officials in Minnesota and other states, but laments he has found little support for his crusade in North Dakota.

Still, North Dakota leaders have been under pressure from the federal government and other states, including Minnesota, to treat crude oil before shipping it around the country by rail to refineries.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is preparing new standards, likely to take effect Jan. 1, to “condition” crude oil before transport to address safety concerns. Separately, federal officials are drafting more stringent safety standards for tanker cars.

“I think we have to take some responsibility over what’s going over the tracks into Minnesota and the rest of the country,” Schalow said. “It has a lot to do with this is a product that’s coming out of my state.”

By his own admission, 59-year-old Schalow is not a consensus builder. A freelance writer for marketing clients, he isn’t a joiner by nature. Bespectacled, with a goatee, he is soft-spoken but adamant in expressing his views.

He has peppered North Dakota officials, including petroleum regulators and the three-member Industrial Commission, with emails calling for action and asking who is in charge of what he sees as a vital issue of public safety.

“I’ve badgered them relentlessly,” he said.

He is dismayed by what he regards as a sluggish state response, even after an official “tabletop exercise” last June that estimated 60 or more casualties if an oil train derailed and exploded in Fargo or Bismarck.

The exercise simulated a disaster similar to the blast that killed 47 and destroyed much of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013.

For Schalow, the key to ensuring the oil is safe is to remove the volatile gases before shipping. Anything else, in his view, is passing along a potentially deadly problem for others to face.

“If you want to fix a problem, you go to the source of the problem,” he said. “You don’t prepare for something that doesn’t have to happen.”

Derailments costly

Dealing with an explosive derailment can be costly. New York officials estimated, for example, it would take $40,000 in foam to extinguish one tanker car.

In the rail accident near Casselton last December, 20 tanker cars derailed, 18 of which were breached, unleashing a series of explosions and an enormous fireball. Intense heat kept the firefighters far from the flames, which they had to allow to burn out.

No one was seriously injured or killed in the crash.

“They can’t be prepared for combat explosions,” Schalow said, referring to the explosive fires that Bakken crude derailments have produced. “What would they do?”

North Dakota officials in the governor’s office and Department of Mineral Resources declined to talk about Schalow’s advocacy, but said the state is moving ahead to improve the safety of crude oil transportation.

“Gov. (Jack) Dalrymple takes rail transportation safety very seriously and he believes it’s important to have the public weigh in on this important issue,” said Jeff Zent, a spokesman and policy aide for the governor, the highest-ranking member of the Industrial Commission.

“That’s why the Industrial Commission will announce further regulations aimed at improving the safety of oil rail transportation,” he added.

“Our goal has always been to make crude oil as safe as possible for transport, within our jurisdiction,” said Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, which regulates oil and gas production.

The department is also working with “the appropriate federal agencies to better communicate our role to make crude oil as safe as possible for transport,” Ritter said.

In contrast to North Dakota, most crude oil in Texas is stabilized before shipment. Pipeline companies routinely require stabilization before accepting shale oil.

“How hard is it to stand up and say I’m against trains blowing up in my town?” Schalow asked, referring to public officials’ initial reluctance to impose tougher standards.

A recent Forum Communications poll found that 60 percent of respondents were concerned about the safety of shipping crude oil by rail, but there has been no real clamor from residents, Schalow said.

“It’d be nice if someone stood up and defended me once or twice,” he said. As for holding a meeting of supporters, well, “Who would I call and who would dare show up? There’s no political will in this state except for that anonymous 60 percent.”

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton has urged North Dakota to stabilize oil before loading crude onto trains. An estimated 50 North Dakota oil trains roll through Minnesota each week, many with 100 tanker cars.

Pressure to make North Dakota crude oil safe for interstate shipment is mounting on several fronts.

Other states, including New York and California, where refineries take Bakken crude, are considering safety requirements.

“There’s a lot more angst across the country than there is here,” Schalow said, adding that most of his contacts are from other states, including New York, California and Washington state.

“I think he’s a pretty straight shooter,” said Tim Meehl, mayor of Perham, Minn., who is concerned about oil trains traveling through his town. “I think everything he says has a lot of merit to it.”

Meehl has not met Schalow, but saw him at a meeting in Moorhead earlier this fall attended by Dayton and local officials, and has exchanged emails with Schalow.

“They don’t want to step on toes out there,” Meehl, a native of Oakes, N.D., said of North Dakota officials’ deference to oil interests. “We need the oil. We just need to do it in a safer way.”

In North Dakota, residents and politicians seem reluctant to do anything that risks discouraging energy production, a powerful economic engine, Schalow said.

‘Quiet acceptance’

“You can’t say anything that might impact business, no matter what,” he said, describing what he regards as North Dakota’s curious culture of quiet acceptance.

Regulators aren’t alone in singling out oil tanker cars. BNSF announced last week that it will charge a $1,000 fee for each older crude oil tank car, more prone to puncture than newer models. By one estimate, that would add about $1.50 a barrel to the transportation cost.

In Texas, energy companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make crude safer to handle. The cost of stabilizing crude oil could trim potential revenue by perhaps 2 percent, according to the estimate of an unidentified industry executive interviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Schalow has been an outspoken critic of the Bush presidency and North Dakota leadership, but said he really has no allies in either political party.

A conservative blogger once described him as a “truther” for his criticisms of Bush, whom he castigated for failing to take pre-emptive action against al-Qaida despite warning signs of their terrorist ambitions. Schalow dismisses the “truther” label as unfair, saying he offered no conspiracy theories in his book.

He said the paperback sold 4,000 or 5,000 copies after it came out in 2006. No book is forthcoming on the issue of Bakken crude safety, but Schalow is unlikely to stop writing his letters, emails and Facebook posts.

“I don’t think it’s a political issue,” he said. “I think it’s a public safety issue.”

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