Noticed that I’d picked up some new readers the other day, shortly after I commented on another site about the viability of shipping frac sand from the Minnesota River valley to the Bakken oilfields way up in western North Dakota. So thought I’d do a further examination of that issue for the environmentalists that are new to this blog, in hopes I can shed some light on the subject and hopefully our new green friends will hang around, fall in love with motorcycles, and join us in having fun riding while saving the planet or whatever.

Now getting oil from below terra firma to our local gas station should be simple- sink a well, pump the crude out, pipe it to the refinery, break it down into everything from light aromatics to tarry stuff best suited to marine engines with fuel lines the size of sewer pipes, and pump and transport it to the terminals and us “end users”. If life in the NoDak oil patch was only so simple… And you’d think that the NoDaks, who have a state mill to stabilize the grain markets and a state bank to stabilize the financial markets, could make some sense of the NoDak oil rush and in similar manner stabilize the process of extracting the Bakken’s oil to some semblance of sustainable.

But Noooo… Let’s look at the inputs first. First and foremost, they still need workers, and lots of ’em, to get oil out of the ground and on it’s way. Compared to most of the rural west, the Bakken is fortunate to have decent rail service provided by BNSF and CP, and Amtrak’s Empire Builder provides passenger service to Williston, Stanley, and Minot in the Bakken on a daily basis. For the last few decades that was more than adequate, and the ‘Builder nearly always had empty seats available between “the cities” and Seattle. Both Williston and Minot have decent regional airports with expensive but daily air service. Today, with the Bakken boom in full swing, the Empire Builder has become a commuter train for oilfield workers and you’d best have reservations, and Williston is debating whether to expand it’s airport or to start over with a whole new one. IIRC, two buslines have extended service to the Bakken also. That leaves driving your car to work in the Bakken, and even parking must be getting tight… I get the general feeling that the oilfield employers would rather you didn’t bring your wheels to their “mancamps”, and let them bus you wherever they want you. Besides, they wouldn’t want you to go job hunting or drinkin’ on your day off, or maybe even drivin’ home and never comin’ back! There is also another quick and all too frequent escape route from the Bakken… Air ambulance. Combine newbie workers with “crash course” training and flammable liquids, and you have a steady flow of burn patients that are keeping the burn wards of hospitals hundreds of miles away full.

That’s the least of Bakken’s logistics problems. Back in the early days of high hanging oil that was under some pressure to liberate itself from the ground, you just sunk a well and the oil delivered itself. Then when that failed, you put in a simple pump to persuade the oil. Then a few decades back, they figured out how to further persuade the oil out by injecting muck at high pressure. Those high pressures fractured impervious rocks and let more oil flow, and “Fracking” was born. With the development of pumps that could shoot near solids at 500 times normal atmospheric pressure and more, drilling equipment whose capabilities are measured in miles of depth, and well shafts that can go down, sideways, and probably do figure eights too, the Bakken became viable as oil prices rose.

Of course, these drill rigs on steroids are big eaters, and at present there’s about 200 of them working at a time in the Bakken. They work fast too- sinking wells down a mile a week. The rule of thumb is a hundred truckloads of sand, water, fuel, pipe, etc. for every well sunk… 200 rigs sinking a well every 2 weeks times 100 truckloads equals 40,000 truckloads of stuff heading into the Bakken a month, and that’s over a thousand loads a day. That number’s notable, because it’s at about a thousand trucks a day that a two lane road reaches capacity, traffic slows, and accidents increase. The Bakken is pretty much all two lanes except for US highway 2 as far west as Williston. To make matters worse, most of the wells are on narrow gravel township and county roads that strained to handle a wheat harvest, and are failing at such a rate under the onslaught of herds of oilfield trucks that several counties had to close their roads to trucks last spring to catch up with repairs.

So clearly the trucking industry ain’t up to the job, which leaves the heavy lifting of stuff to the Bakken to the railroads. As always, they’ve pretty much risen to the challenge, especially BNSF, but CP, not so much. The logistians at BNSF has figured out how to corral carloads of sand and stuff headed to the Bakken in neat hundred car plus unit trains and neatly route them to the Bakken. There’s been some problems with lack of track capacity with even the high priority Empire Builder often delayed the odd hour or two, but nothing like a UP style “service meltdown”. CP’s tracks aren’t in quite as good a shape, and with fresh from almost running CN into the ground new CEO Hunter Harrison taking over, CP isn’t likely to spend much making things better. And the rest of the rails to the Bakken? A mix of shortlines, many spun off from the big railroads, that vary from slow but solid to tracks so bad that trains travel at a walking pace so when the inevitable derailment occurs, they can dynamite the brakes and get stopped before the train gets too far off the tracks.

And at the source for all this stuff, we find a motly mix of truckers again. Especially on the hauls from the frac sand pits to the tracks, sand being an exempt comodity that any idiot can haul without need for even the modest oversight of receiving and maintaining operating authority from the gov’ment. So at the pits, “Billy Big Rigger” and all his “cowboy” trucker buddies are all fired up at the chance to race their Peterbuilt and Kenworth dump trucks from pit to tracks and back, terrorizing the populace in the process. It’s a pretty similar driving phenomena to what’s been observed amongst Bakken truckers running wide open throttle down narrow dirt roads. Up the financial food chain a bit, a whole horde of speculators are ready to turn sleepy farmland into deep pits in hopes they’ll strike it rich mining… sand. But there’s frac sand all over the “driftless zone”, suggesting that a lot of the bluster one hears from frac sand speculators won’t produce big holes in the ground everywhere. That said, consider that sleepy little shortline Progressive Rail is now originating about a hundred car unit train every working day on what was recently a near abandoned branch line in central Wisconsin. A WImax dump truck has a payload of a mere 25 tons at best, so it takes 400 or so of them little truckloads to fill a unit train. Even if the pit runs two shifts, that’s a truck about every two minutes winding it’s way down narrow hilly two lanes from pit to tracks and back. The NoDak end of the haul is no better, with a NDmax dump truck capable of taking an only slightly bigger third of a railcar load… So figure a truck every three minutes down those narrow NoDak dirt roads.

That’s just the big stuff that neatly fits onto unit trains… How about the odds and ends like what looked to be some 40 foot or so long valve and pipe assemblies I saw heading west at 80 MPH on double trailers  up I94 west of Fargo recently? Short of trucks and motel rooms for truckers to rest up after a long drive to the Bakken, truckers are forced to speed and ignore fatigue to deliver. Major truck accidents are becoming daily events on the Bakken, and it’s seems like just about every week a trucker crashes into a train and screws up rail service to the Bakken too. Oh, and did I mention that over ten percent of the truck loads to the Bakken are oversize/overweight permit loads? Yup, just imagine two 16 foot wide trucks and loads trying to pass on a 20 foot wide dirt road…

That’s just half the problem… Gotta get that oil out. Now they’ve been drilling for and pumping oil out of western North Dakota since the 1950s, and you’d think they’d have a system of pipelines in place to unobtrusively deliver that oil from wells to refineries and beyond. Well they don’t, so another whole fleet of trucks hauls the oil to what pipelines there are, or increasingly to the tracks. Yup, I live in western Minnesota along the BNSF tracks, and every day I see a handful of unit trains of crude oil pass by on their way from the Bakken to refineries. And given the human factors in this logistics snafu, those oil unit trains won’t go away soon.

Besides all the logistical roadblocks of  overloaded road, rail,  and pipeline networks there’s a couple human blockades too. The first is the oil industry… Have you noticed that the oil company whose logo you see on the station sign has contracted and sub-contracted out just about everything else between the dead dinosaur leftovers and your gas tank? Thus responsibility has been delegated down to the lowest subbie on the totem pole, who can conveniently go bankrupt when they get caught dipping 10,000 gallon tanker loads of water out of the Missouri River, or worse yet, crashing 10,000 gallon tankerloads of crude oil into said river. It’s not rocket science that the big oil companies could easily afford their own fleets of safe trucks and drivers, ship frac sand in covered rail cars and trucks, and use 21st century monitoring technology to catch leaks before they become environmental catastrophies, etc.. But they haven’t and  won’t.

The other blockade of the Bakken and the oil sands to the north in Canada appears to be the work of environmental extremists. Take a map of north america and mark the Bakken oilfields, then draw lines and arrows along the routes materials like frac sand has to take in to the Bakken and crude oil has to take out. Yup, pretty easy too see why the environmental extremists are trying to block frac sand mining, trucking, and trains from the driftless area to the Bakken. Same with the outgoing oil- the environmental extremists are trying desperately to block construction of new pipelines to the south towards Texas’ refineries and ports and to the west to pacific ports.

The environmentalists have a valid point- It’s the editorial position of this blog that global warming is probably for real, and we made the mess. Thus it’s our responsibility to clean up said mess by cutting our carbon burning. What we differ on it tactics- the blockades are doomed to failure. For a start, there’s so many potential sources of frac sand that you can’t blockade them all. And in the wings, there’s more than a few scientists working on cheaper replacements for frac sand, some of which would use up waste streams that we need to recycle anyway. On the output side, the blockade has merely shifted the oil from pipelines to less safe rails… Ever game out what a derailment resulting in the puncturing of a hundred 25,000 gallon tank cars full of crude would look like in a city or environmentally sensitive area? That oil has more ways to move from the Bakken to markets than to the south or west too- With global warming, Hudson Bay will see much longer shipping seasons and the St.Lawrence Seaway will likely be open year ’round. Better to stop global warming by replacing SUVs with 60 MPG motorcycles and have fun in the process!

So I suspect by now I’ve got both the oil biz and the environmentalists ticked off… So next post we’ll get back to our regular programming, with an examination of slightly less controversial topics like why my Moto Guzzi wouldn’t start today…