Pipelines and Pipe Dreams: A Big Fracking Mess

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As the Gregorian/ISO 8601 year 2016 begins in this part of the world it’s a bright sunny day. Up to now we’ve had a warmer than usual Fall and Winter but it seems to have settled back into its usual rhythm. So it seems there is much to be optimistic about but yet there is this sense of cautiousness and concern.

A few weeks back the Minnesota Public Utility Commission (PUC) did a 180 and ordered full Environmental Impact Statements be done on the Sandpiper and Line 3 pipelines proposed to run through northern Minnesota. Not that they did this on their own but had to be court ordered to do so.

There is some interesting evidence about 6 miles from my house that suggests that the pipeline and oil companies aren’t worried about this reversal. There’s a site where there is a rail spur and every month since last Spring it has been filled with flat bed rail cars stacked four layers high with pipes for the pipelines. Each of the 25 to 30 cars parked there haul 15, 36 inch pipes. So on any given day there are 375 to 450 pipes being off loaded onto trucks that then head to staging area to the east and west.

One such staging area sits alongside Highway 200 about 10 miles north of Itasca State Park – the home of the Mississippi Headwaters. This is where the Mississippi begins its 2,320 mile journey creating a River Basin of some 1,151,000 square miles. There is a sign there that tells you if you put something in the river it will take about 36 days to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

When you’re driving around this part of Minnesota you pass over the Mississippi over and over as it meanders through the region beginning its southward journey. These pipelines will cross the Mississippi several times there is no way to avoid it unless you go much further south.

And then further to our West is the Red River. Originating at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers between Minnesota and North Dakota, it flows northward through the Red River Valley continuing into Manitoba, Canada. It empties into Lake Winnipeg, where its waters join the Nelson River and ultimately flow into the Hudson Bay Watershed.

The Hudson Bay Watershed includes Hudson Bay, James Bay, Ungava Bay and Foxe Basin. It captures 30 percent of the water runoff in Canada, and the rivers that flow into Hudson Bay and James Bay make up 20 percent of the freshwater flow into the Arctic Ocean.

Bottom line – there is no way to put in these pipelines without impacting two major water systems that can ultimately affect either the Gulf of Mexico or the Arctic Ocean.

Add to this scenario all of the oil now being transported by rail. The pro-pipeline argument is that using pipelines will be safer than transporting by rail. According to a February 2014 article by Blake Deppe in Peoples World, “..more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined. More than 1.15 million gallons of oil are estimated to have spilled from rail cars, and this isn't even taking into account disasters for which data has not yet been collected, such as an estimated 400,000-gallon spill that occurred Dec. 30 in Casselton, North Dakota, causing derailments and deadly explosions.”

Right next door to us we have a major research project being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) titled, "Crude Oil Contamination in the Shallow Subsurface: Bemidji, Minnesota."

Their web site describes the research project as: “Crude oil from a pipeline rupture in 1979 contaminated a shallow aquifer near Bemidji, Minnesota. After initial cleanup, about 110,000 gallons of crude oil remains in the subsurface. This site thus provides a unique opportunity to study a contaminant plume where the location, amount, and timing of the spill are precisely known. The study focuses on how crude oil spreads in soil vapor and ground water. Models have been developed to describe the controlling physical, chemical, and biological processes. These models can be used to evaluate remedial strategies for oil spills, including intrinsic bioremediation.”

You gotta love the mindset of Western scientists when they can describe this situation as “..a unique opportunity to study a contaminant plume..” I’m sure Mengele thought studying Jewish twins in a concentration camp was a “unique opportunity” as well.

For anyone wondering what “intrinsic bioremediation” means here’s how it’s described on the project’s web site: “A two-dimensional, multispecies solute-transport model code with biodegradation (BIOMOC) was developed to quantify natural rates of biodegradation, to evaluate natural attenuation as a long-term remedial strategy, and to design performance monitoring. This code can be readily applied to other systems and has been used at several other sites within the United States.

In other words, leave it where it is, monitor it and see if our Mother Earth can clean it up.

And there’s more crazy news from the front end of the system. I recently came across articles discussing the development of “sonic fracking”. It’s being hailed as a more “environmentally responsible” way of doing fracking.

This approach uses “sonic cannons” in two ways – first for discovering potential oil deposits and secondly for retrieving oil still in wells. The upside is supposed to be in the fact that they don’t use vast quantities of water and chemicals to retrieve the remaining oil.

According to the American Petroleum Institute: "It's like a sonogram of the earth… You can't see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the earth that might hold oil and gas."

A 2014 Associated Press article describes the offshore process as, “The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects are expected to be operating simultaneously as companies gather competitive, secret data. Whale-spotting observers will be required onboard, but the sounds — which water amplifies by orders of magnitude — pose real dangers for whales, fish and sea turtles that also use sound to communicate across hundreds of miles.”

On land it’s being used in older wells where it is estimated that upwards of 80% of the oil potential of a well is trapped in the rock strata. Again, the sonic cannons are fired off in the well so that the vibrations can shake the oil loose.

You would think the steep decline in oil prices and the steep rise in oil reserves would have slowed all of this down. But it hasn’t. The Saudis are still pumping, the Iranian oil is no back on the global market, and drilling in the Bakken continues albeit at a slower pace.

To me, this says the oil companies are continuing with their plans based on information and projections us ordinary folks aren’t privy to.

For the past couple of months I’ve been part of an exploration into the development potentials for solar. It’s an exciting project that builds on the idea of developing solar gardens, concentrated areas of solar development that provides consumer involvement through either subscriptions or membership thus allowing poorer folks access to the benefits of photovoltaic energy and savings on their energy bills. Our approach is to involve Indigenous families that regularly receive Energy Assistance, and, combining the huge energy consumption of the Tribe to create an economy of scale that benefits everyone.

In the mean time we will keep our eye on the pipelines and sonic fracking as it moves closer and closer to our territories.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.