Billionaire fights to keep tar-sands oil out of state
By David R. Baker, April 29, 2015
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has a new mission
— keeping oil from Canada’s tar sands out of California.
Steyer’s NextGen Climate organization released a report Tuesday warning that an “invasion” of tankers and railcars carrying crude from the oil sands could soon hit West Coast refineries, which currently process very little Canadian oil.
Steyer, a major Democratic donor who quit his hedge fund to focus on fighting climate change, has risen to prominence as a vocal opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline extension, which would link the oil sands to American refineries on the Gulf Coast.
But Tuesday’s report, prepared with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of other environmental groups, notes that the oil industry is pursuing other pipeline routes that would carry tar-sands petroleum to Canada’s Pacific Coast. From there, it could be shipped to refineries in California and Washington. In California, companies have proposed five new terminals for receiving oil shipped by rail — another potential means of entry. California’s policies to fight climate change discourage but don’t prevent the use of oil-sands crude.
“Keystone is not the only way the tar sands threaten our country,” Steyer said Tuesday at an event in Oakland, releasing the report. “The owners of the tar sands are always looking for other routes to the world’s oceans and the world’s markets.”
Steyer and other environmentalists have made blocking Keystone a rallying cry in the fight against global warming, since extracting hydrocarbons from the oil sands releases far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than other forms of oil production. And unlike common oil, the diluted bitumen (a tar-like substance extracted from the sands) sinks in water, making spills from pipelines and tankers difficult to clean.
“It is shockingly toxic, it is extremely nasty and it takes forever to clean up,” Steyer said. “To end the risk from tar-sands oil once and for all, we need to move beyond oil to a clean energy future. Luckily, this is the kind of leadership California excels at.”
The oil industry, and the Canadian government, call the oil sands a reliable source of oil from a friendly ally. And industry representatives often note that California’s dependence on imported oil has grown in recent years, in large part because production in Alaska — once one of California’s biggest suppliers of crude — has dropped.
Steyer has devoted a sizable chunk of his personal fortune, estimated at $1.6 billion, to backing political candidates who support action on climate change and targeting those who don’t, spending $73 million in the last election cycle. He said Tuesday that he has not yet decided whether to pay for an advertising campaign against bringing oil-sands crude to the West Coast.
“I’m not 100 percent sure,” he said. “Exactly how we fight it, I don’t think we’ve determined.”
Crude from the tar sands makes up a tiny fraction of the oil processed in California refineries — less than 3 percent, according to the report. And while the amount of oil shipped into the the Golden State by rail has soared in recent years, most of that petroleum comes from North Dakota and other states where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has produced a glut of crude.
But oil companies have proposed two pipeline projects that would link the oil sands to the Pacific Ocean, both of them traveling through British Columbia. If built, they could lead to an additional 2,000 oil tankers and barges moving up and down the West Coast each year, according to the report. The rail terminal projects proposed in California could raise the amount of oil-sands crude processed in the state each day from the current 50,000 barrels to 650,000 barrels by 2040.
However, that outcome is hardly certain.
A California policy known as the low carbon fuel standard requires oil companies to cut by 10 percent the amount of carbon dioxide associated with each gallon of fuel they sell in the state, reaching that milestone by 2020. In addition, the state’s cap-and-trade system forces refineries to cut their overall greenhouse gas emissions. Neither policy specifically prevents refineries from using oil-sands crude, but both give oil companies a powerful incentive to use other sources of petroleum.
Anthony Swift, one of the report’s authors, said California needs to adopt more stringent emissions targets to keep out crude from the oil sands.
“These policies are a very good start,” said Swift, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to get more robust targets — for both the low carbon fuel standard and the cap — to signal to the industry that California is not going to be an option for tar-sands refining.”
David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
Repost from Forbes
[Editor: This lengthy analysis is worthwhile for its factual background and its many links to source material, even though the author seems unaware that fossil fuels are on their way out. – RS]
Pick Your Poison For Crude — Pipeline, Rail, Truck Or Boat
By James Conca | 4/26/14
Crude oil is moving around the world, around our country, around pristine wilderness, around our cities and towns. It’s going to keep moving, will undoubtedly increase during our new energy boom, so what is the safest way to move it?
The short answer is: truck worse than train worse than pipeline worse than boat (Oilprice.com). But that’s only for human death and property destruction. For the normalized amount of oil spilled, it’s truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat (Congressional Research Service). Different yet again is for environmental impact (dominated by impact to aquatic habitat), where it’s boat worse than pipeline worse than truck worse than rail.
So it depends upon what your definition is for worse. Is it death and destruction? Is it amount of oil released? Is it land area or water volume contaminated? Is it habitat destroyed? Is it CO2 emitted?
In both the United States and Canada, more crude oil, petroleum products, and natural gas are transported in pipelines than by all other modes combined, using the unit of ton-mile which is the number of tons shipped over number of miles (The Fraser Institute).
In the U.S., 70% of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline. 23% of oil shipments are on tankers and barges over water. Trucking only accounts for 4% of shipments, and rail for a mere 3%. In Canada, it’s even more lopsided. Almost all (97%) of natural gas and petroleum products are transported by pipelines (Canadian Energy Pipeline Association).
Amid a North American energy boom and a lack of pipeline capacity, crude oil shipping on rail is suddenly increasing. The trains are getting bigger and towing more and more tanker cars. From 1975 to 2012, trains were shorter and spills were rare and small, with about half of those years having no spills above a few gallons (EarthJustice.org). Then came 2013, in which more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents than was spilled in the previous thirty-seven years.
Crude is a nasty material, very destructive when it spills into the environment, and very toxic when it contacts humans or animals. It’s not even useful for energy, or anything else, until it’s chemically processed, or refined, into suitable products like naphtha, gasoline, heating oil, kerosene, asphaltics, mineral spirits, natural gas liquids, and a host of others.
U.S. Refinery Capacity by PADD (Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts) in 2012. Source: Congressional Research Service; Energy Information Administration
Every crude oil has different properties, such as sulfur content (sweet to sour) or density (light to heavy), and requires a specific chemical processing facility to handle it (Permian Basin Oil&Gas). Different crudes produce different amounts and types of products, sometimes leading to a glut in one or more of them, like too much natural gas liquids that drops their price dramatically, or not enough heating oil that raises their price.
As an example, the second largest refinery in the United States, Marathon Oil’s GaryVille Louisiana facility, can handle over 520,000 barrels a day (bpd) of heavy sour crude from places like Mexico and Canada but can’t handle sweet domestic crude from New Mexico.
Thus the reason for the Keystone Pipeline or increased rail transport – to get heavy tar sand crude to refineries along the Gulf Coast than can handle it.
The last entirely new petroleum refinery in the United States opened in 1976 (Congressional Research Service). Since then, the number of refineries has steadily declined while refining capacity has concentrated in ever-larger facilities. 25% of U.S. capacity is found in only eleven refineries. Recently, Shell’s Baytown refinery in Texas, the largest in the nation, was expanded to 600,000 bpd. Most of the big refineries can handle heavy crude, but many smaller refineries can process only light to intermediate crude oil, most of which originates within the U.S.
Thirty-three states have refineries, and most refineries can handle tens-of-thousands to hundreds-of-thousands of barrels per day, but the largest capacity sits around the Gulf Coast and in California where the oil boom in America began. However, in the 1990s after production of sweet domestic crude had significantly declined from mid-century highs, the big companies like Exxon, Shell, CITCO and Valero spent billions upon billion of dollars to retool their refineries to handle foreign heavy crudes.
Oil spill volume per billion-ton-miles compared among transportation modes. Source: the Congressional Research Service
With the number of refineries decreasing, and capacity concentrating in fewer places, crude usually has to be moved some distance. There are four ways to move it over long distances: by pipeline, by boat, by truck, or by rail. Each has its unique problems and none is without harm.
The question is: which is safest and which should we invest in most? Take two spills for comparison.
The Quebec train wreck last year killed 47 people and spilled 1.5 million gallons of crude onto land (Bloomberg.com). The Enbridge pipeline rupture in 2010 spilled over a million gallons of similar crude into the Kalamazoo River but did not kill anyone (Wikipedia).
Contamination of water is generally much worse for the environment than contamination of land as it spreads quickly over more area and impacts more species and habitat. But killing people makes a big difference. I don’t want to put a price tag on human life, but the Government has, and it’s about $8 million a person (NYTimes).
So the Quebec train derailment cost over $400 million in human life, and will cost another $150 million or so for clean-up and rebuilding the town. The Enbridge pipeline cost no human lives but will cost about a billion dollars to clean-up and, like the Exxon Valdez, will never really succeed.
Note: using this value of $8 million a person, we 300 million Americans are worth $2.4 quadrillion, hmm…maybe not a good number. If we use our net value for America as a whole, about $75 trillion, divide by 300 million people, then the average value of a human life in America would be $250,000. So the Quebec train derailment cost less than $12 million in human life. Thus the danger of trying to gauge the value of a human life.
These are not easy questions and one’s vested interest has a great deal of sway in the answer. You really do need to pick your poison.
Like always, it will probably come down to money. And it won’t be about jobs (Pipeline Jobs), regardless of which end of the spectrum you believe, because there just isn’t enough jobs to matter compared to the value of the oil itself and the refinery capacity. It’s simply cheaper and quicker to transport by pipeline than by rail or by truck. The difference in cost is about $50 billion a year for shipping via the Keystone versus rail, totally eclipsing any economic effect of jobs in either direction.
A rail tank car carries about 30,000 gallons (÷ 42 gallons/barrel = about 700 barrels). A train of 100 cars carries about 3 million gallons (70,000 barrels) and takes over 3 days to travel from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, about a million gallons per day. The Keystone will carry about 35 million gallons per day (830,000 barrels). This puts pressure on rail transport to get bigger and bigger, and include more cars per train, the very reason that crude oil train wrecks have dramatically increased lately.
The Congressional Research Service estimates that transporting crude oil by pipeline is cheaper than rail, about $5/barrel versus $10 to $15/barrel (NYTimes.com). But rail is more flexible and has 140,000 miles of track in the United States compared to 57,000 miles of crude oil pipelines. Building rail terminals to handle loading and unloading is a lot cheaper, and less of a hassle, than building and permitting pipelines.
It isn’t acceptable to just say we shouldn’t be moving oil, because we will for the next decade or more, no matter what. So, keeping in mind the difference between death/damage to humans and damage to the environment, which would you choose?
Like a few weeks ago, I would appreciate just one comment from each person for the first 24 hours after posting so we can get a tally before we get into the normal animated back and forth debates. Below is some more information on each transportation mode.
Two seemingly opposite facts –
1) from 1980 to 2012, the train accident rate in the United States fell 80 percent, the rail employee injury rate fell 85 percent and the RR crossing collision rate fell 82 percent, but
2) more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than was spilled in the previous thirty-seven years.
Using data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were spilled from rail cars in 2013. On the other hand, from 1975 to 2012, railroads spilled a total of 800,000 gallons of crude oil (McClatchy; check out their great interactive map of spills over space and time).
Even worse, these data do not include rail accidents in Canada. 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in a single day last year in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and 47 people were killed. The shipment did originate in North Dakota so take your pick of provenance.
If crude oil shipping on rail is becoming a preferred mode for oil producers in our North American energy boom, this trend is very disturbing. In 2011, crude rail capacity between southern Alberta and the northern U.S. Great Plains tripled to about 300,000 barrels per day, about a third of the Keystone XL capacity. U.S. railroads delivered 7 million barrels of crude in 2008, 46 million in 2011, 163 million in 2012, and 262 million in 2013 (almost as much as that anticipated by the Keystone XL alone). To replace the Keystone XL with rail shipments would mean another doubling of rail capacity, but that would be just another couple of years given this trend.
The Association of American Railroads points out that over 11 billion gallons of crude were shipped in 2013, so these spills account for only one-hundredth of one percent. On the other hand, the environment and people’s health don’t care about what made it though OK, just what was spilled.
Our railroad infrastructure was not built to handle this mass of crude on its system and doesn’t use enough specialty cars. If this trend continues, major infrastructure investments need to occur on both sides of the border, as well as significant changes in protocol and regulation.
Like: big oil trains have to go slower, or oil tank cars have to be hazardous material cars.
It turns out that the rail industry recently modified its guidelines in response to the Quebec derailment (Congressional Research Service) as follows:
restrict train speeds to less than 50 mph
increase the frequency of track maintenance
install wayside defective equipment detectors, such as “hot box” detectors, that detect wheels with faulty bearings, every 40 miles, with specific protocols for conductors when defects are indicated
use only track in good condition to support speeds of 25 mph or higher.
Reducing train speed can reduce the number of cars that derail as well as the likelihood that oil will be released from those cars, or that explosions will result.
Although the news is filled with comparisons between pipelines and trains, the third vector is trucks. While we can compare relative risks, the issue with trucking is that it takes lots and lots of trucks to move billions of gallons of crude since a single tank trailer only holds about 9,000 gallons or 200 barrels, a little under a third of a rail car. Our present fleet only handles 4% of our needs, so shipping by truck instead of the Keystone XL would take another million-and-a-half tanker trucks. Trucking is the most risky form of transport from an accident standpoint (yes, driving is one of those things, like smoking, that will always be in the top four most risky things to do – What’s Really Gonna Kill You?) and also from a spill standpoint. However, it is the least impactive from an environmental standpoint since each truck is small and is mainly on land, so large spills to waterways are less likely than any other mode of transport.
What is important to note, however, is that regardless of the long-hauling mode, most petroleum eventually gets onto a truck for the short moves. This limits the tons-mile risk but increases the incident number risk.
In a white paper about the dangers of transporting dangerous goods by truck, the Canadian Trucking Alliance repeats its long-standing position that “the federal government should introduce a universal mandate requiring all trucks, where the driver is currently required to carry a logbook under the federal hours of service regulations, to be equipped with an electronic recording device; and introduce a manufacturing standard (in lock-step with the United States) requiring all new heavy trucks to be equipped with a roll stability system” (Canadian Trucking Alliance). In addition, the Alliance wants all Canadian provinces and U.S. states to follow Ontario’s and Quebec’s lead by requiring truck speed limiters.
Ship transport is possible along coastal waters and along large rivers and is the method that is used for almost all foreign imports except from Canada. The thing about ships is that they carry a lot of oil per boat and many of the largest spills in history are from boats, such as the Exxon Valdez and the latest one from a collision in the Houston Ship Channel just last month (NOLA).
Five out of the ten largest oil spills in U.S. history were from boats (List of oil spills). Most important is that they have immediate impact on aquatic ecosystems both in the ocean, in rivers, or along shorelines that are usually sensitive habitats. I still don’t understand why these keep happening with modern technologies to detect water depth and nearby boats. Human error needs to be better removed from this equation.
The most controversial transport mode today is pipeline, mainly because of the Keystone XL debate and the recent Pegasus and Enbridge pipeline ruptures. The industry points to the generally good safety record in terms of percentages. Among oil pipeline workers, the rate hospitalization was 30 times lower compared to rail workers involved in transporting oil, and 37 times lower than for road transport, between 2005 and 2009, the latest period for which complete data exists (Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil).
But pipeline spills are inevitable. About 280 pipeline spills occur each year in the U.S. that are deemed significant (USDOT), that is, either there is a fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization, it causes $50,000 or more in total costs (measured in 1984 dollars), there are highly volatile liquid releases of more than 5 barrels or other liquid releases of more than 50 barrels, or there are liquid releases that result in an unintentional fire or explosion.
Again, you’ll notice that these measures are in human health and property damage, not environmental effects. Environmental impacts are very difficult to estimate and, in almost all cases, are not even attempted.
In the end, all of these transportation modes can be made safer if stricter regulatory controls and modern technologies are emplaced, but the questions remain – can we make the industry comply and which ones do we want to invest in?
Finally, what brave reader wants to calculate the value of an acre of land destroyed by an oil spill? The EU recently allotted $100 per acre for removing pristine land for energy use, but this seems way too low. My muse suggests you start with Sierra Club, NRDC and EDF.