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How the shale boom came to North Dakota — and how it’s spreading west

It really is an apt image: a series of briefcases, presumably in a range of colors from dusty brown to black, sitting in the freezing air on the steps of a North Dakota courthouse sometime before dawn. The briefcases served as proxies for the oil and gas company representatives jostling to buy mineral rights in the empty flatness of western North Dakota, representatives not eager enough to close the deals that they would stand in subzero temperatures.

Williston, North Dakota, in 2008
Williston, North Dakota, in 2008.

This scene leads the New York Times Magazine's overview of the state's newest-but-not-only oil boom, the cacophonous hustle to split apart the Bakken shale with hydraulic fracturing. The Times has been on a North Dakota bender of late, covering gender issues and infrastructural strains caused by the boom. But this most recent piece provides the most insight on how the boom came to be and how long it might last.

They have been through this before, the people of North Dakota, first in the ’60s, a decade after oil was discovered in the state. And then again in the late ’70s, when the boom was driven by rising oil prices. Monthly oil production, which peaked in 1984 at 4.6 million barrels, fell to half and then went sideways for nearly a quarter-century. By February 1999, there wasn’t a single rig drilling new wells in the state, and oil development looked to be yet another cautionary tale in the familiar boom-and-bust history of the region ...

And then around seven years ago -- driven by technological refinements that have made North Dakota a premier laboratory for coaxing oil from stingy rocks -- the state’s Bakken boom began in Mountrail County. … The first areas of the Bakken to be hydraulically fractured were on the Montana side of the Williston Basin in the Elm Coulee Field, where oil was discovered in 2000. Early treatments there were called “Hail Mary fracks” because geologists and engineers would just drill a well, pump in frack fluid and pray for a robust result. The technique is more exact now. Certain grades of sand or sometimes proppant made of ceramic beads are matched to certain kinds of rock, and the wells are fracked in stages, as many as 40 stages per well.

Just how much oil is in the Bakken is still unknown. Estimates have been continuously revised upward since a 1974 figure of 10 billion barrels. Leigh Price, a United States Geological Survey geochemist, was initially greeted with skepticism when, about 13 years ago, he came to the conclusion that the Bakken might hold as much as 503 billion barrels of oil. Now people don’t think that number is as crazy as it seemed. …

[A]s the volume of oil in the Bakken shale is still a moving target, and recovery techniques are increasingly sophisticated, some estimates put the life of the Bakken play, and the attendant upheaval it is causing in North Dakota, at upward of a hundred years.


Dodge made ‘God made a farmer’ Super Bowl ad, and I made an angry face

Farmers: We like them! So does Dodge, I guess, because there's not any other clear reason why the American car company would make this ad except to try to associate itself with a trade close to America's scrappy -- and white male -- identity.

From Dodge's portrayal, you'd hardly know that almost a third of farm operators are women, and the population of farm owners of color is growing by full percentage points each year. You'd also hardly know who does most of the work on most of those farms.

Read more: Food


China’s pollution reaches Japan. Next stop: California

Smog in China
Smog in China.

My wife and I used to have an annoying neighbor. There were various ways in which he was annoying -- he would holler every Sunday during the Saints games and would stand outside talking on his cell phone at all hours of the night. But most annoying was the smoking. He'd stand under our bedroom windows and smoke, the smell drifting into our apartment. Of all of his infuriating tendencies, this was the worst.

But at least what wafted into our clothes and lungs while we slept wasn't toxic smog. That's the problem Japan is having with its neighbor to the west. From Agence France-Presse:

The suffocating smog that blanketed swathes of China is now hitting parts of Japan, sparking warnings Monday of health fears for the young and the sick.

The environment ministry's website has been overloaded as worried users log on to try to find out what is coming their way. ...

Air pollution over the west of Japan has exceeded government limits over the last few days, with tiny particulate matter a problem, said Atsushi Shimizu of the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES).

Prevailing winds from the west bring airborne particles from the Asian mainland, he said.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Americans spent 4 percent of household income on gas in 2012

In 2012, Chevron made $26.2 billion in profits. Exxon, $44.9 billion. Shell, $26.59 billion. At today's prices, that's enough to buy almost 25 billion gallons of gas in California.

Last year, Americans paid record-high average gas prices, a fact that is certainly linked to the oil companies' massive profits.

How much did Americans spend on gas? From the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

Gasoline expenditures in 2012 for the average U.S. household reached $2,912, or just under 4% of income before taxes, according to EIA estimates. This was the highest estimated percentage of household income spent on gasoline in nearly three decades, with the exception of 2008, when the average household spent a similar amount. Although overall gasoline consumption has decreased in recent years, a rise in average gasoline prices has led to higher overall household gasoline expenditures.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.


Another week, another oil tanker hijacking

Last week, we explained why piracy has shifted from Africa's east coast to its west. In short: higher security near Somalia combined with a new strategy near Nigeria. In at least one hijacking, pirates sought a tanker's cargo of oil instead of ransoms for crew members.

Or, rather, in at least two hijackings. From the AP:

A French-owned oil tanker missing off Ivory Coast with 17 sailors on board likely has been hijacked, an official with an international piracy watchdog said Monday, in what may be the latest attack by criminal gangs targeting the ships to steal their valuable cargo. Meanwhile, a sailor died in a similar attack Monday near Nigeria's largest city.

Details remained scarce Monday about the fate of the ship, flagged in Luxembourg. The ship had been reported missing Sunday and officials believe it fell victim to the same pirates operating throughout the Gulf of Guinea, said Noel Choong, a spokesman for the International Maritime Bureau in Malaysia.

Pirates surrender to a U.S. Navy vessel near Somalia in 2011
Pirates surrender to a U.S. Navy vessel near Somalia in 2011.


Super Bowl power outage somehow Obama’s fault, apparently


A CBS announcer was mid-sentence, probably scrambling to fill time during what looked like an increasingly lopsided football game, when he went silent. Well, he probably didn't go silent -- but the broadcast did. For a few seconds, the network showed a dimly lit stadium, and then cut to commercial.

For more than half an hour, much of the New Orleans [car company name] Superdome was dark -- a length of time that, by my informal calculations, was twice as long as the amount of time the teams were actively playing football. It was undoubtedly embarrassing to all involved -- the city, the venue, the network, the league. And, somehow, the president.

No one is quite sure what happened. Talking Points Memo shares the official cause identified last night:

Shortly after the beginning of the second half of the Super Bowl in the Mercedes Benz Superdome, a piece of equipment that is designed to monitor electrical load sensed an abnormality in the system. Once the issue was detected, the sensing equipment operated as designed and opened a breaker, causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue.

This morning, a CBS reporter suggested a malfunctioning monitor was to blame.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Right-wingers want to teach kids that climate change is a fairy tale

Photo by Shutterstock.

Last month, Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma all introduced bills that would make teaching about climate change in public schools less a science and more a political debate. The bills -- based on model legislation from the supremely evil American Legislative Exchange Council -- would require schools to teach that climate change is "controversial" and not widely accepted scientific fact.

From DeSmogBlog:

In the past five years since 2008, among the hottest years in U.S. history, ALEC has introduced its "Environmental Literacy Improvement Act" in 11 states, or over one-fifth of the statehouses nationwide. The bill has passed in four states [-- Louisiana, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas] ...

ALEC's "model bills" are written by and for corporate lobbyists alongside conservative legislators at its annual meetings. ALEC raises much of its corporate funding from the fossil fuel industry, which in turn utilizes ALEC as a key -- though far from the only -- vehicle to ram through its legislative agenda in the states.

The bills use almost the exact same language. Oklahoma's, for example, calls for ...


California high-speed rail construction not exactly moving at high speed

The Golden State is set to begin construction on its much-vaunted (and much-moneyed) high-speed rail project this summer, a line that would run from Southern California to the San Francisco Bay Area. Amtrak is on board and the Department of Transportation is pumped, but despite having less than six months to go until they break ground, California hasn't bought the land where the train is supposed to go yet. Like, none of it, not "a single acre." Oops.

drawing of California's planned high-speed train
California High Speed Rail Authority

The Los Angeles Times reports:

The complexity of getting federal, state and local regulatory approvals for the massive $68-billion project has already pushed back the start of construction to July from late last year. Even with that additional time, however, the state is facing a risk of not having the property to start major construction work near Fresno as now planned.

It hopes to begin making purchase offers for land in the next several weeks. But that's only the first step in a convoluted legal process that will give farmers, businesses and homeowners leverage to delay the project by weeks, if not months, and drive up sales prices, legal experts say.

If the first 130 miles of rail aren't completed by 2018, at a spendy rate of $3.6 million each day, the project stands to lose federal funding.

One major roadblock will be Central Valley farmland that has been skyrocketing in value due to a booming global tree-nut market. The longer California drags its feet, the more expensive those farms, and in turn that train, will turn out to be. The first stretch of the project is only 29 miles, but involves the purchase of about 400 different parcels, many of them fancy farmland that owners are reluctant to part with.


Lawmakers call for end to animal-deafening, oil-finding offshore surveys

When oil companies are trying to figure out where to drill offshore, they drag an array of seismic air guns behind a boat as it sails around the ocean. Submerged air guns fire bursts of air downward to create sound waves that travel to the ocean floor and rebound back up to sensors. Here's what that looks like from the surface:

Underneath, however, it's much less entertaining. Arrays contain dozens of guns, each of which produces a burst with tens of thousands of times as much energy as a jet engine, according to Oceana Deputy Vice President Jacqueline Savitz, as reported by FuelFix. Good for getting sonar readings on the ocean floor. Bad for any animals that are swimming in the vicinity.

This is one reason that New Jersey lawmakers wrote a letter to President Obama, asking him to stop seismic surveys on the East Coast. The other reason: Who wants an oil well offshore? From FuelFix:


Keystone XL decision unlikely before June — and that’s good news

anti-Keystone protestors

Well, Keystone XL protestors, kiss your springs goodbye. Looks like you'll be fighting TransCanada's proposal to run a mega-pipe from the Alberta oil sands to Oklahoma until June.

From Reuters:

The Obama administration's decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline will not be made until at least June, a U.S. official said, which would delay the project for months and frustrate backers of Canada's oil sands.

"We're talking the beginning of summer at the earliest," said the source, who did not want to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the TransCanada Corp project, which has been pending for more than four and a half years. "It's not weeks until the final decision. It's months."

This can actually be considered good news. As we've noted multiple times, insufficient distribution outlets for tar-sands oil means that its sale price is plummeting -- meaning that developing the oil sands makes less and less economic sense.