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Pictured in September 2019, Paul Lehto resigned from ONEOK, citing safety concerns, in July 2016. Ashley Braun / DeSmog

By Justin Nobel

Two North Dakota gas processing plants in the heart of the Bakken oil fields have shown signs of an eroded safety culture and startling construction problems, according to Paul Lehto, a 54-year-old former gas plant operator who has come out as a whistle-blower.

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Protesters walk along land being prepared for the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota on Sept. 3, 2016. ROBYN BECK / AFP / Getty Images

Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, has missed its 2018 deadline to plant tens of thousands of trees along the pipeline's route, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The company was supposed to plant 20,000 trees along the pipeline's 359-mile route through North Dakota by the end of 2018, as per the terms of a September 2017 settlement with North Dakota's Public Service Commission. So far, it has planted only around 8,800.

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32 fracking companies in the U.S. are running a deficit of nearly $1 billion. grandriver / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Justin Mikulka

2018 was the year the oil and gas industry promised that its darling, the shale fracking revolution, would stop focusing on endless production and instead turn a profit for its investors. But as the year winds to a close, it's clear that hasn't happened.

Instead, the fracking industry has helped set new records for U.S. oil production while continuing to lose huge amounts of money—and that was before the recent crash in oil prices.

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Native American leaders and environmental groups called on New York City to divest from banks funding the Dakota Access Pipeline on Feb. 23, 2017. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images

By Sharon Kelly

Roughly four years ago, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) filed a federal application to build a 1,172 mile oil pipeline from North Dakota's Bakken shale across the U.S. to Illinois at a projected cost of $3.8 billion.

Before that application was filed, on Sept. 30, 2014, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe met with ETP to express concerns about the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) and fears of water contamination. Though the company, now known as Energy Transfer, had re-routed a river crossing to protect the state capital of Bismarck against oil spills, it apparently turned a deaf ear to the Tribe's objections.

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Oil well in North Dakota. Tim Evanson / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

A pipeline released 63,840 gallons (1,520 barrels) of produced water that contaminated rangeland in Dunn County, North Dakota, the Bismarck Tribune reported, citing officials with the North Dakota Department of Health.

Produced water is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction, and can contain drilling chemicals if fracking was used.

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Mogun Frejo outside his home in Stillwater, OK and Morgun Frejo at Pawnee Camp in Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock. Joseph Rushmore

By Liz Blood

A little over a year ago, Morgun Frejo, a member of the Pawnee, Otoe-Missouria, Navajo nations, began camping at Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock. The Missouri River is sacred to both his Pawnee and Otoe-Missouria tribes and Frejo recalls elders in both tribes telling him stories of its importance as a child.

He lived at Standing Rock from mid-August 2016 to late February 2017, just before the camp was evicted and closed by the National Guard and local law enforcement.

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Dakota Access Pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners is no longer using private security firm TigerSwan to monitor security in North Dakota, a company spokesperson confirmed to the AP.

Last week, a governor-appointed security board revealed TigerSwan had been operating in North Dakota during the NoDAPL protests after being denied a license, and sued to block the company's work in the state and seek administrative fines.

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Oil pipeline leak in December contaminated Ash Coulee Creek. Photo credit: North Dakota Department of Health

Energy companies say that pipelines are the safest way to transport oil, but a number of recent spills plague the now-completed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which could start service as soon as May 14.

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Oil pad near Little Missouri River. NPCA/Flickr

A pipeline in western North Dakota spilled an estimated 756 gallons of oil and 294 gallons of saltwater, a drilling byproduct, into a tributary of the Little Missouri River, the Associated Press reports.

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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.

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Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has long been tied to environmental risks such as spills. The frequency of spills, however, has long been murky since states do not release standardized data.

Estimates from the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) vary wildly.

"The number of spills nationally could range from approximately 100 to 3,700 spills annually, assuming 25,000 to 30,000 new wells are fractured per year," the agency said in a June 2015 report. Also, the EPA reported only 457 spills related to fracking in 11 states between 2006 and 2012.

But now, a new study suggests that fracking-related spills occur at a much higher rate.

The analysis, published Feb. 21 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed 6,648 spills in four states alone—Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania—in 10 years.

The researchers determined that up to 16 percent of fracked oil and gas wells spill hydrocarbons, chemically laden water, fracking fluids and other substances.

For the study, the researchers examined state-level spill data to characterize spills associated with unconventional oil and gas development at 31,481 fracked wells in the four states between 2005 and 2014.

"On average, that's equivalent to 55 spills per 1,000 wells in any given year," lead author Lauren Patterson, a policy associate at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, told ResearchGate.

North Dakota reported the highest spill rate, with 4,453 incidents. Pennsylvania reported 1,293, Colorado reported 476 and New Mexico reported 426. The researchers created an interactive map of spill sites in the four states.

Although North Dakota is rich in oil, the state's higher spill rate can be explained by varying state reporting requirements. North Dakota is required to report any spill larger than 42 gallons whereas requirement in Colorado and New Mexico is 210 gallons.

Patterson points out that the different reporting requirements are a problem.

"Our study concludes that making state spill data more uniform and accessible could provide stakeholders with important information on where to target efforts for locating and preventing future spills," she told ResearchGate. "States would benefit from setting reporting requirements that generate actionable information—that is, information regulators and industry can use to identify and respond to risk 'hot spots.' It would also be beneficial to standardize how spills are reported. This would improve accuracy and make the data usable to understand spill risks."

The reason why the researchers' numbers vastly exceeded the 457 spills estimated by the EPA is because the agency only accounted for spills during the hydraulic fracturing stage itself, rather than the entire process of unconventional oil and gas production.

"Understanding spills at all stages of well development is important because preparing for hydraulic fracturing requires the transport of more materials to and from well sites and storage of these materials on site," Patterson explained. "Investigating all stages helps to shed further light on the spills that can occur at all types of wells—not just unconventional ones."

For instance, the researchers found that 50 percent of spills were related to storage and moving fluids via pipelines.

"The causes are quite varied," Patterson told BBC. "Equipment failure was the greatest factor, the loading and unloading of trucks with material had a lot more human error than other places."

For the four states studied, most spills occurred in the the first three years of a well's life, when drilling and hydraulic fracturing occurred and production volumes were highest.

Additionally, a significant portion of spills (26 percent in Colorado, 53 percent in North Dakota) occurred at wells with more than one spill, suggesting that wells where spills have already occurred merit closer attention.

"Analyses like this one are so important, to define and mitigate risk to water supplies and human health," said Kate Konschnik, director of the Harvard Law School's Environmental Policy Initiative in a statement. "Writing state reporting rules with these factors in mind is critical, to ensure that the right data are available—and in an accessible format—for industry, states and the research community."

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