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North Dakota Oil Spill Vastly Underestimated as Trump Approves KXL

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The pipeline leak in December contaminated Ash Coulee Creek near Belfield, North Dakota. Photo credit: North Dakota Department of Health

The amount of crude oil that spewed near Belfield, North Dakota from the ruptured Belle Fourche pipeline in December was vastly underestimated.

The original estimate was around 176,000 gallons of oil. After further review, pipeline operator True Companies now reports about 12,615 barrels (529,830 gallons) of oil spilled, spokeswoman Wendy Owen told Inforum. The cause of the leak has not been determined.


The spill contaminated a hillside and Ash Coulee Creek which empties into the Little Missouri River. The break was also significant because it happened less than 200 miles away from the Oceti Sakowin Camp, where Water Protectors were protesting the heavily contested Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

The new number makes the Belle Fourche spill one of the largest in state history and perhaps the largest oil pipeline spill that contaminated a North Dakota water body, Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager for the state's Department of Health, told Inforum.

North Dakota's largest spill happened in September 2013 when a Tesoro Corp. pipeline leaked about 840,000 gallons of fracked oil in a wheat field near Tioga, causing one of the biggest onshore oil spills in recent U.S. history. That spill has still not been cleaned up more than three years later.

Additionally, based on data from Hart Energy, the revised estimate makes the Belle Fourche Pipeline spill the largest pipeline leak in all of 2016. Second place now goes to Sunoco Logistics—a DAPL operator—which spilled 8,600 barrels of oil from its Permian Express II Pipeline near Sweetwater, Texas in September.

Cleanup of the Belle Fourche Pipeline bust is still ongoing. "We continue to work on the recovery and the cleanup. We will be there until this is finished," Owen said.

Traces of benzene, a petrochemical solvent linked to cancer, have been detected throughout Ash Coulee Creek, Suess said.

Earlier today, the Trump administration granted a presidential permit to TransCanada for its $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline which will carry Alberta tar sands to processing and export facilities in the southern U.S.

On Jan. 24, President Trump signed an executive order making it easier for both the Keystone XL and the DAPL to go forward.

Despite repeated safety assurances from the industry, breaks happen. EcoWatch mentioned in October that 220 significant pipeline incidents occurred in 2016 and 3,032 since 2006.

"Pipelines spill; it's not if, it's when," Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with Standing Rock and the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in reaction to the Belle Fourche spill in December. "And the state-of-the-art 'leak detectors' the pipeline companies always tout don't work."

As EcoWatch reported, the Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. is part of the family-owned True Companies, which also operates Bridger Pipeline LLC. Both pipelines are operated from the same control room in Casper, Wyoming. From 2006 to 2014, Belle Fourche reported 21 incidents, leaking a total of 272,832 gallons of oil. Bridger Pipeline recorded nine pipeline incidents in the same period, spilling nearly 11,000 gallons of crude.

A Belle Fourche pipeline that spilled 12,200 gallons in May, 2014 occurred on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land near Buffalo, Wyoming. It was later discovered that Belle Fourche did not have a permit to operate the land. Sister company Bridger was fined $27,029 for trespassing by the BLM.

Bridger was also responsible for dumping up to 50,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River in 2015.

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By Nicole Greenfield

Kristan Porter grew up in a fishing family in the fishing community of Cutler, Maine, where he says all roads lead to one career path: fishing. (Porter's father was the family's lone exception. He suffered from terrible seasickness, and so became a carpenter.) The 49-year-old, who has been working on boats since he was a kid and fishing on his own since 1991, says that the recent warming of Maine's cool coastal waters has yielded unprecedented lobster landings.

"The temperature of the Gulf of Maine is creating the right conditions for lobster, so it's helped our industry—and it's been a big boost for the Maine economy," Porter, the current president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said. "But you never know what lies ahead. If it continues to warm, it may end up going the other way."

The Gulf of Maine is setting frequent temperature records and warming faster overall than 99 percent of the world's oceans, due in large part to climate change. Meanwhile, its lobster population skyrocketed by 515 percent between 1984 and 2014. In 1990, for example, lobster landings in Maine totaled 28 million pounds. Ten years later that figure was up to 57 million pounds. And in every year since 2011, the take has exceeded 100 million pounds, peaking at 132.6 million pounds in 2016 and turning lobster into a half-billion-dollar industry for the state.

Fishermen like Porter have been reaping the benefits of the boom, but he's right — as the Gulf of Maine's waters inevitably continue to warm, lobster populations will almost certainly decrease. The crustaceans thrive at temperatures between 61 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the water hits 70 degrees, its oxygen levels plummet, to the detriment of a host of marine plants and animals, lobsters included. According to a 2018 study, the gulf's lobster population could fall by 40 to 62 percent over the next 30 years, returning the industry — the nation's most valuable fishery — to early-2000s numbers.

"Temperature is a big part of the story here," said Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and a coauthor of the study. "Lobster is likely to decline, and that's obviously more worrisome in the North, where it has been booming."

Maine lobsters are normally brown, but about one in every two million is blue.

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Marine scientist Susie Arnold of the Rockland, Maine–based Island Institute notes that rising temperatures have also contributed to a decline in other fisheries like shrimp, cod and scallops, leaving fishermen in Maine precariously dependent on the thriving lobster populations. "A lot of fishermen in coastal communities in Maine are relying on just one fishery, and as we're seeing the impacts of climate change, that definitely gets people worried," she said. In response, Arnold and her colleagues are encouraging fishermen to think about diversification opportunities like aquaculture. "We're trying to help coastal communities maintain their cultural heritage, and a large part of that has to do with making a living off a healthy marine ecosystem."

State lawmakers, too, are taking note of the warming trend and rising up in support of climate action. Maine Governor Janet Mills cited concerns about climate change impacting the lobster industry in her February announcement that the state would join the U.S. Climate Alliance. She has also linked the recent creation of a Maine Climate Council and ambitious statewide renewable energy goals to the health of local fisheries. (Mills recently signed several climate bills into law that will help the state transition to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.)

Such a head-on response to the impacts of climate change facing Maine offers a much-needed boost to the future of both lobsters and the coastal communities that rely on the fishery. Meanwhile, the iconic sea creatures have already benefited from generations of conservation efforts, as noted by Pershing and his fellow researchers. In addition to heeding minimum and maximum catch size limits, fishers must refrain from taking any egg-bearing female lobsters. Instead, when they catch these breeders, they clip their tails with a "V notch,"—a mark that will stay with a lobster through several molts—then release them. (The clipped tail signals to other fisherman who may encounter the same lobsters that they are off-limits.)

Porter and other fisherman liken this investment in the future of the industry to putting money in the bank. And marine scientists, including NRDC's Lisa Suatoni, call it smart climate policy. "Leaving these large, fecund females in the water is a really good idea in the context of a rapidly changing environment," Suatoni said. "It isn't just fixated on how to get maximum sustainable yield but also expanding our objective to also get increased ecological or evolutionary resilience."

The decline of the lobster industry in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where waters are warmer and regulations less stringent than in Maine, serves as a cautionary tale for their northern neighbor. Landings in southern New England shrank by as much as 70 percent from 1997 to 2007, but the industry has resisted many conservation measures, and again rejected fishing restrictions brought to the table by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2017.

The proposed restrictions would have changed the legal harvesting size and reduced the number of traps allowed per fisherman, among other regulation changes. Had Maine followed the same lax approach, Pershing and his colleagues estimate that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine would have increased by less than half as much as it did during their 30-year study period.

While Pershing praises Maine's forward-looking approach for boosting the resilience of its lobster industry in the face of the growing climate crisis, "there's a limit to how much we can adapt and how much we can manage around it," he said. "When you look beyond 2050 in a high-CO2 world, it's a scenario where fisheries are really challenged no matter where you look in the country. We have to figure out how to avoid that because everything gets so much more difficult in that world—and we can make that case in a really concrete way with some of the fishery models."

Pershing says that climate change is having impacts up and down the food chain in the Gulf of Maine. For example, a sharp decline in a species of tiny copepod — a shrimp-like creature that is a favorite food of herring, seabirds and endangered right whales — is putting further stress on these creatures.

"These aren't just faraway changes that are happening in the ocean where nobody really sees them," Pershing said. "There are real consequences for the Gulf of Maine and the communities that live on the coast."

Nicole Greenfield is a writer at NRDC whose articles on religion, the environment, popular culture and social justice have appeared in many publications.

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As a growing number of states move to pass laws that would criminalize pipeline protests and hit demonstrators with years in prison, an audio recording obtained by The Intercept showed a representative of a powerful oil and gas lobbying group bragging about the industry's success in crafting anti-protest legislation behind closed doors.


Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.

AFPM represents a number of major fossil fuel giants, including Chevron, Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.

"We've seen a lot of success at the state level, particularly starting with Oklahoma in 2017," said Morgan, citing Dakota Access Pipeline protests as the motivation behind the aggressive lobbying effort. "We're up to nine states that have passed laws that are substantially close to the model policy that you have in your packet."


The audio recording comes just months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that would punish anti-pipeline demonstrators with up to 10 years in prison, a move environmentalists condemned as a flagrant attack on free expression.

"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.

As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."

"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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