(Billings, Montana -- Yellowstone Public Radio) Growth in Montana’s oil and gas, agriculture, and coal sectors has spurred Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway to open a new economic development office in Billings, Montana.
For about 30 minutes this weekend, a road normally devoted to cars instead became a cattle highway, as wranglers on horseback moved 290 steer through a portion of Grand Teton National Park.
(Helena, MT – YPR) – The Montana Senate Natural Resources Committee plans to vote Friday on a bill that would exempt oversize loads from having to undergo a review under the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).
House Bill 513’s sponsor is Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City). He says the measure makes it crystal clear that the Montana Legislature “never intended for routine permits for oversize loads be forced to undergo the same scrutiny for environmental impacts that a new highway, a new coal mine or an oil refinery would be subjected to.”
The issue reached a flashpoint about two years ago when protesters sued to block several megaloads. At that time ImperialOil/ExxonMobil wanted to move oversize loads of equipment bound for the Oil Tar Sand fields in Alberta, Canada. Protesters also tried to stop oversize loads of coker drums traveling through Missoula to Billings.
“Prior to this particular incident in Missoula, the Montana Department of Transportation permitting process was always clearly designed and implemented to ensure the public notice and public safety were given substantial consideration without needless requirements or restrictions on the permitees,” says McChesney.
In order to haul an oversize load through Montana, companies need to obtain a 32-J permit. The current application contains an environmental checklist.
Opponents of HB 513 say because these megaloads could pose a threat to public safety, the environment, and cultural resources, a MEPA review may be appropriate. They add these projects should be subject to the MEPA process that expand the public’s right to know and the right of the public to participate in government decisions on such matters.
“If HB 513 passes, these monstrous, three-story, 200-foot long and 500,000-600,000 pound, made in Korea (loads) will be exempt from review for public safety, local highway infrastructure, cultural resources, the economy, and the environment,” says Montana Sierra Club's Claudia Narcisco.
Not true, says McChesney, a retired MDT employee who worked with oversize loads and the 32-J permits. He says before such permits are issued, MDT reviews the route, load size, and that public input is always welcome. He argues a MEPA review for the 32-J permit is redundant. “There’s no justifiable reason for this superfluous barrier to the commerce and the accompanying perception that Montana is a difficult place to do business.”
HB 513 was sent to the Montana Senate on a 72-26 vote.
“This bill is not an anti- or pro-marijuana bill,” says House Bill 168’s sponsor David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula. “It’s about impaired driving.”
The bill seeks to set the legal limit at 5 ng/ml of delta-9 tetrahyrocannabinol. It’s the same limit set in Montana’s medical marijuana laws.
He says now that Montana’s neighbors -- Washington and Colorado -- have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, he’s concerned impaired drivers may be traveling through the state.
Montana Highway Patrol Sargent Curt Sager trains law enforcement officials in drug recognition. He says while DUI cases involving alcohol are on the decline in the state, marijuana continues to escalate.
He told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010 that 372 of the DUI cases involved marijuana; in 2011 that rose to 476; and last year it grew again to 486 cases.
Sager adds the numbers are growing for DUI fatalities involving marijuana. He says they now account to ¼ of the cases.
“So obviously this is a very dangerous, deadly problem that we’re encountering on our roadways,” he says.
He says setting a legal limit for Delta-9 THC for marijuana is based on the .08 blood alcohol content (BAC) in the DUI laws.
Retired chiropractor Pat Pardis is a member of the Montana Cannabis Information Association. He’s against the bill, saying science is inconclusive as to whether the 5 ng/ml limit is accurate to designate an impaired driver.
“We do not believe that per se laws really improve safety on the highway,” he says. “It may make it easier to put somebody in jail or into a treatment program.”
HB 168 passed through the Montana House on a 80-18 vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee did not immediately act on the bill.
(Helena, MT-YPR) – There's no relief in sight to remedy the long waits for prospective semi truck drivers to get their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).
Montana legislators, for now, are not funding a request by the Montana Motor Vehicle Department to retain four full-time equivalent (FTE) CDL examiners. The inaction comes despite acknowledgement by members of the Montana House Appropriations Committee that there’s up to a 60 day waiting period to take the CDL exam.
“I find it unacceptable that we got a 60-day waiting list to put people to work so they can start paying their taxes,” says House Appropriations Chairman Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip). He adds this is not the fault of the MVD.
The reason for the shortage of semi-drivers is multifaceted, but it is exacerbated by the boom in the Bakken oil field in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. That has led to more people seeking training to drive the big rigs and the need for a CDL.
Ankney asks if the local community colleges can offer that training and testing.
MVD Administrator Brenda Nordlund says current state law prohibit third-party testing. “That happens in other states, but there are some risks,” she says. “Fraud, particularly when there is a large demand and scarcity of resource.”
Currently MVD has five people, some part-time, temporarily spread across Montana to conduct CDL exams. The money for those positions runs out June 30, 2013.
Initially the House Appropriations Committee tried to fund those positions with money from a consumer protection account. A legal opinion advised them against that action.
The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee passed the state’s main budget bill without funding the temporary CDL positions. The bill can still be amended on the House Floor or in the state Senate.
(Helena, MT – YPR) – Montana lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a bill that would increase the distance motorists have to give a school bus when children are getting on and off.
House Bill 155 would amend current Montana law to increase the distance a motor vehicle has to stop from 15 to 30 feet when a school bus puts on its red flashing light.
Representative David “Doc” Moore (R-Missoula) is the bill’s sponsor.
The freshman lawmaker brought toy school buses and handed them out to many state representatives in the 100-member house to try to persuade his colleagues to vote for his first bill.
Moore said the bill is about safety. “In 2011, nationwide there were 100 fatalities or injuries of school children in school safety zones,” he said. “Sixteen of these fatalities happened when children were getting on or off their buses.”
But not everyone was on board. Representative Jerry O’Neil (R-Columbia Falls) questioned whether the bill was necessary. He asked: where are the statistics that changing Montana law will save a child’s life?
“I think we’re better off to leave it the way it is. It isn’t causing any problems the way it is. I think we’re better off to just vote ‘no’ on this,” he said.
But HB 155 passed the Montana House on an 83-17 vote. It faces a final vote in the House. If it passes, it will go to the Montana Senate for consideration.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Even in the wide open plains of Southeastern Montana, there's not enough land to go around, not when the rights of local ranchers clash with global energy ambitions of a coal mining company.
A proposed rail route is becoming the fault line in the dispute. It could run right through Clint McRae's property, and he doesn't like it.
The new preferred route for the long-stalled Tongue River Railroad (TRR) project will interrupt cattle operations so private companies can export more coal to Asia, says McRae, a rancher who has emerged as a designated spokesman for several area landowners who oppose the rail project.
“We have a situation where a private, for-profit corporation has the power to use eminent domain – federal eminent domain – to condemn my private land so we can export coal to China. I have a huge problem with this,” he says.
The main purpose of the rail line is to serve the proposed Otter Creek Coal tracts in southeastern Montana. The area is located in a coal-rich area known as the Powder River Basin (PRB). The mine is currently undergoing the permitting process. Proponents of the new rail line have filed an updated route proposal with the Federal Surface Transportation Board.
The route, known as the Colstrip Alignment, came as a surprise to McRae who ranches south of Colstrip, MT. He says this new proposed route wasn’t identified at the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Scoping meetings held across Southeastern Montana in November.
“The issue that we had then is that the maps were so lousy we could not tell exactly where it (the rail line) went,” McRae says.
He says that according to the map of the new proposed route, the TRR rail line will go across nine miles of his land and disrupt his ability to move cattle between pastures. McRae says his Amish neighbors told him they're worried they won't have a rail crossing that can accommodate horse-drawn buggies.
The long-stalled TRR project is now owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF), Arch Coal Incorporated, and billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.
BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg says the new preferred route has less of an impact. "Well, this Colstrip route affects fewer landowners,” she says. “It also doesn’t require a new crossing of I-94. And the alignment in the Tongue River Valley went from 68 miles to 8.5 miles.”
Lundsberg says the new route is possible because advances in rail technology. She says the Colstrip Alignment has a steeper grade than the route originally identified, but operationally it is more attractive.
“First of all we’re reducing the route from 83 miles to 42 miles,” She says. “And we’re still able to keep the same train size and locomotive configuration on the Colstrip route.”
In announcing the acquisition of the Otter Creek Coal tracts, St. Louis-based Arch Coal Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steven F. Leer said, “…We believe these Northern PRB reserves will help us competitively serve U.S. power producers, supply additional coal for export to emerging Asia or possibly house the site of a future coal-conversion facility.”
In addition to his objection as landowner, Clint McRae is a member of the Montana-based conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council. McRae is calling on the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to hold additional hearings in Montana on this new TRRC Supplemental Application.
He says, “I think it’s extremely underhanded for the Burlington Northern railroad to pull this kinda thing. They could have done this around Thanksgiving and they chose to wait until the 11th hour to spring it on us. I think that is unconscionable.”
BNSF’s Suann Lundsberg says she has not heard whether the STB will hold additional public meetings. “The public process is a process the STB goes through to set the scope. We were continuing to do our engineering work that we needed to do regardless. So this just happened to be something we said, ‘You know this looks like a better route for us.’”
The STB extended the deadline for filing comments on the Draft Scope of Study for the TRR Environmental Impact Statement until January 11, 2013. A call to the STB about whether additional public hearings will be held was not immediately returned.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – The federal Surface Transportation Board is hosting a series of public meetings this week in Montana on a proposed railroad that could expand coal mining and perhaps lead to more coal exports to Asia.
The meetings are part of an environmental review for the proposed Tongue River Railroad (TRR).
The 83-mile line would extend from Miles City, MT to the proposed Otter Creek Coal tracts. The TRR developers estimate the railroad would haul up to 20 million tons of coal annually or about half of Montana’s current coal production.
The long-stalled proposal has faced decades of delays due to court and funding challenges.
Some southeastern Montana landowners and environmental groups have opposed the railroad, saying it will industrialize a rural agricultural area and the burning of coal will worsen climate change. The TRR backers say the project will boost the economy.
It now has new owners: The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Arch Coal Inc., and billionaire Forrest Mars, Jr.
Arch Coal is seeking to build a coal mine at the southern end of the railroad, near Ashland, MT at Otter Creek.
The deadline for public comments on the TRR proposal is December 6, 2012.
(Grand Teton National Park , WY– YPR) – Human engineers faced off against nature’s engineers in an effort to save a scenic road in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park (GTNP).
“Beavers have been called the civil engineers of the natural world because they are prone to making these very extensive dams,” says park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.
One extensive dam and lodge flooded a portion of the scenic Moose-Wilson Road in GTNP. As a result park staff placed a system of perforated pipes in the pond in early August to gently flow water through the dam and lower the water level.
“We were concerned that we were going to lose the road all together,” says Skaggs.
The beavers had other ideas.
Nature photographer Jackie Gilmore of Jackson Hole, WY says within hours of the park’s mitigation work the beavers began to plug up all of the holes in the pipe with mud.
“The term ‘busy as a beaver’ was really obvious,” Gilmore says. The adults in this family of nine beavers quickly got to work, “going back and forth doing all this work,” she details. Within a few hours she says the water level began to rise again in the beaver pond.
So GTNP officials went back to the drawing board.
This time they installed a bigger bundle of longer pipes. Skaggs says they are 30 feet long. She says the system was designed to gently divert the water through the dam and further downstream.
Given the ingenuity of the beavers, however, park crews took steps to protect their work. There’s a wire cage at the front to keep the beavers from plugging up the pipes with sticks and mud. Posts also hold the pipes in place. Skaggs says beavers have been known to raise such pipes, rendering them ineffective.
She says signs will be put up at the beaver pond to explain how this system works. “We’re trying to find that nice balance to protect the park road but also protect the beavers, our number one priority.”
Gilmore, who’s been a nature photographer since 1978 in Jackson Hole, praises park officials for protecting the beaver’s habitat. She’s been watching this beaver family up close all summer. She says many times a crowd would gather.
“Everyone was able to see what they look like, how they acted, and there were points where you could actually see their large incisor teeth they use to cut off the branches,” she says. “And if everybody was quite quiet and respectful you could hear them chewing and every once in a while they would make this humming sound. It was just an amazing experience,” she says.
Skaggs says the Moose-Wilson Road is a destination for Grand Teton National Park visitors because of the abundance of wildlife, including moose and a great grey owl.
She says because of that there have been conflicts between wildlife and people. So this beaver battle has drawn new attention to a plan to move the road. The road re-alignment is just one project in a a larger Grand Teton National Park transportation plan, signed in 2007. Skaggs says park officials are hopeful funding will allow the project to proceed in 2015.
(Laurel, MT - YPR) – Many motorists feel annoyed about having to wait a a rail crossing for a passing freight train. Rail crossings also impact farmers just east of the Montana Rail Link switching yard, east of Laurel.
After a few minutes of waiting, this Montanan decided to put his feet up and take the wait in stride.
The possibility of more train traffic and longer and more frequent waits at rail crossings has been raised in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Some Powder River Basin coal mines in Montana and Wyoming want to export their coal to Asian markets. That coal would travel via rail to proposed new port projects in the Pacific Northwest.
(Billings, MT - YPR) Montana is in the midst of a severe wildfire season. Crews from across the country and their wildland firefighting trucks have become a common sight this summer, as pictured above.
Billings residents did a double take recently when a several pink structure firefighting trucks pulled into town. They stopped overnight at the local Holiday Inn.
The "Pink Heals Campaign" is currently on a three-month tour of several mid-Western and Western States. Founder Dave Graybill says the tour is to encourage communities to come together to support their women, men and children fighting cancer. The retired firefighter has recruited about a half-dozen firefighters to join him on the tour.
Joel Mains is a firefighter and paramedic from Crystal Lake, IL. He says what has surprised him on this tour is the kindness of strangers. "We were at a truck stop and one of the belts was making a little bit of noise," Mains says. "And this old truck driver came up and climbed up on the back end of the engine and we popped the hatch and he gave us a hand. That happens frequently."
The "Pink Heals" Tour wraps up in Maricopa, AZ in October. In the meantime, here are a few more photos so you can keep your eye out for them as the roll through your town.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) officials say the railroad is keeping pace with the rapid growth caused by the Bakken Formation, the largest oil field in the lower 48 states.
The lack of pipeline capacity has led oil producers to turn to rail and semi trucks to bring crude from fields in western North Dakota and eastern Montana to market.
BNSF recently announced it has increased capacity to haul one million barrels of crude per day out of the region, known as the Williston Basin.
“Yeah, it’s fun isn’t it,” says Denis Smith, BNSF Vice President of Marketing of Industrial Products. "Three years ago there was one facility that could load a crude petroleum train up there. Now we’re going to have 10 by the end of the year and a dozen by next year. " These terminals load oil onto 100 car trains.
He says customers have spent about $1 billion on these loading facilities, rail cars, and other infrastructure. In turn, Smith says the railroad has had to make sure it had the capacity to move those trains to market.
“It’s about a dozen trains,” Smith says. “And it is impressive, but if you put it in light of something like our coal business where we haul 50-plus trains a day, we’re capable of doing it.”
According to a BNSF press release, the railroad’s network reaches all major coastal and inland markets and directly serves 30 percent of US refineries in 14 states through direct and interline service. The company has 1,000 miles of rail line in the Williston Basin area, serving eight originating terminals. BNSF also connects to 16 of the top 19 oil producing counties in central and western North Dakota and five of the six oil producing counties in eastern Montana.
The railroad recently announced it spent $197 million on projects in North Dakota and Montana. The company also hired more than 560 new employees across its service area.
Smith anticipates BNSF will continue to be a key transporter of Bakken/Williston Basin crude even if the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is constructed from Canada to the US Gulf Coast. The pipeline is primarily to transport Canadian tar sands crude to the US for refining, but on-ramps are planned in Montana to also transport Bakken crude.
“We go to the Texas/Louisiana gulf but some of the other markets are better markets for producers up there [ND/MT],” Smith says. As an example, he says rail can deliver crude directly to markets in Philadelphia, Chicago, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest. “That’s the beauty and the surprise I think to the producers,” he says. “The reach that we have in terms of getting them to markets that give them the best buck for their oil.”
(Billings, Montana – YPR) – MontanaFair, the region’s largest fair, celebrates the state’s agricultural tradition with people competing to win the purple Best of Show ribbon for wool, pigs, and apple pie. But this year, MontanaFair is also celebrating the importance of the region’s energy industry – oil, gas and coal.
Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota are home to one of the country’s most active oil fields, the Bakken.
The energy exhibits are being held in a building between the mechanical bull ride and the Montana State University Extension Service agricultural and garden demonstration plots.
Event organizer Dana Pulis says Energy Day wants to celebrate Montana’s agricultural heritage and recognize another key industry. “We’re doing business with some of the biggest corporations in energy development while we’re wearing jeans, while we’re in a 100-year-old barn, and while we’re enjoying ice cream and hot apple pie.” Pulis says.
Several companies brought working oil field equipment for public display. Alan Olson of Sanjel Corporation brought what’s known as “the blender.” This 73-foot long truck mixes the hydraulic fracturing – or fracking - fluid and sand. Olson says once MontanaFair is over, this unit is headed for Texas.
A horsepower unit injects the fluid into the wells.
Texas license plates are common in Billings because of the Bakken oil boom. When Olson is asked if Montana is the new Texas: "When you go down and look at our operations in Texas, all of our equipment down there has Montana license plates," he says. "So Texas is the new Montana."
This oil field services truck by Cliffhanger, LLC heats up water. “This is a spectacular piece of equipment, says Olson. “We’ve got to heat up water in the wintertime. You can’t frack or cement with ice cubes.”
Sanjel and Nabors Well Services, the world’s largest on-shore drilling company, are among those also looking at fairgoers as potential employees.
“We’re looking for truck drivers,” says Russ Burch of Billings. The human resources district manager oversees hiring for Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. “I need to hire about 40 of them [truck drivers] to work rotations for us in North Dakota.”
The catch, he says, is they need to be experienced in winter driving -- and willing to put on chains in below-zero temperatures with strong winds.
(Billings, MT – YPR) An additional 60 trains of coal could roll through the Northwest rail network every day headed across the Pacific if forecasts are correct. Two manufacturing firms signed deals last week to build 20 new barges to increase export capacity, a sign of optimism from coal exporter Ambre Energy that port redevelopment proposals will gain approval.
Terminal developers are eying the lucrative Asian market, hungry for energy -- coal from Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin -- to fuel its economic engine. For example, Australian-based Ambre Energy is involved in two proposals to expand the Pacific Northwest port. Exports are constricted because of limited port capacity.
An expansion won't come easy though, considering the chorus of critics citing environmental, traffic, human health, and community concerns with coal shipping, export and even coal use. But in these tight economic times, coal shipping expansion remains popular with the general public, according to one recent survey.
An interim Montana legislative committee became the latest to weigh in on whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should expand an environmental review for Pacific Northwest port projects with a mixed response to the idea, which would slow redevelopment.
The Sierra Club is leading an effort called the Beyond Coal campaign that includes stopping coal exports. Among the concerns cited: the global impacts of coal-fired power plants, the impact of coal dust on human health, and the increase in freight rail traffic that can snarl traffic in local communities.
The Sierra Club, affiliates of the Billings, Mont.-based Northern Plains Resource Council, and local governments like Missoula, Mont. are among those asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand its environmental reviews beyond just the port terminals projects and look at broader environmental areas and issues.
Letters from interested parties have become the weather vane revealing which way the winds of legislative oversight are blowing. The railroad BNSF's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Rose recently wrote a letter to Wash. Governor Christine Gregoire to address concerns about the port projects. The Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (ETIC) of the Montana Legislature sent a letter of it's own to the Corp’s office in Portland, Oregon also opposing an expanded environmental review.
During a recent hearing, the panel heard from proponents, opponents and informational witnesses on the issue before voting on whether to send a letter to the Corps.
All of this back and forth follows a dramatic forecast released in a report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils called Heavy Traffic Ahead.
“Make no mistake about it,” says Terry Whiteside, a transportation consultant and co-author of the report. “This is a huge, huge increase in volume like we’ve never seen before in this part of the world.”
Whiteside projects an additional 27-to-63 trains per day could be the result of increased coal exports to Asia. He calculated that figure based on the export projections of 75 million tons of coal/day by 2017; up to 170 million tons of coal/day by 2022.
“The problem with the study is that it wrongfully assumes that BNSF would originate 100 percent of the Powder River Basin coal,” says spokeswoman Suann Lundberg in Fort Worth, TX. “That’s just not logical. The Powder River Basin is accessed by both the Union Pacific and the BNSF on what we call the ‘joint line.’ 50 percent of it moves on Union Pacific and 50 percent of it moves on BNSF. “
Lundberg says BNSF was not contacted by the authors of the study. She adds the railroad would only have access to one of the proposed six port terminals and the others are either located on other railroads or served jointly among railroads.
Whiteside says he did not contact the railroads, instead he looked at the empirical data and “forced it back on the system.” He adds the study wasn’t designed to be a debate about what the railroad wants.
“I don’t think its any secret that railroads are forecasting the volumes (rail) are going to grow,” says Jim Lewis of Montana Rail Link (MRL), which owns the track between Billings, Mont. and Sand Point, Idaho.
He says there are many reasons, including population and consumption growth for consumer goods, as well as high diesel prices and the semi-driver shortage facing the trucking industry. Lewis says the increase in rail freight traffic is driven by market demands, which can change. He says that’s happening now with the decrease in corn and other agricultural commodities because of the drought and it’s happening with coal.
“I find it kinda ironic that we’re talking about the potential for increased coal traffic in a year when we are forecasting our coal traffic will be below or flat to 2011 volumes,” Lewis says.
He says he also wasn’t contacted for the WORC study. As for the study’s projected increase in rail traffic number, Lewis says they’re not possible given MRL’s capacity constraints. There’s only a single track tunnels over the pass near Bozeman, Mont. and at the Continental Divide. “It would be very costly to try to expand upon that capacity in those two areas,” he says.
Lewis says currently on average, about 19 trains pass through Billings each day, some are MRL traffic, most is BNSF. He says some freight trains terminate at the Laurel, MT rail yards, about 15 miles west of Billings with the remaining 15 continuing west. Lewis estimates the maximum freight rail capacity on the MRL portion of track is about 30 trains/day.
BNSF is investing in its infrastructure. Since 2000, the railroad has spent over $36 billion on maintaining current lines, laying new track, and buying locomotives.
Lundsberg says in Montana, BNSF is spending $111 million in 2012 on infrastructure. She says these capital expenditures, however, are not aimed solely at forecasts of a growing Asian export market for coal.
“Freight traffic will increase with or without coal exports,” she says. “And that means additional traffic and we’re preparing for that.”
That has caused a face-off between groups like the Montana and Billings Chamber of Commerce and environmental organizations like WORC. Economic developers argue Montana and the rest of the country needs the jobs, tax revenue, and infrastructure that increased coal mining and the railroads bring to the region. Conservation groups worry it will be local communities and citizens who will bear the burden of paying for under- and over-passes to re-route traffic past this projected increase in train traffic while corporations are making millions of dollars and should be the ones to pay that cost.
The one thing all sides agree upon is why now is the time for the railroads to have discussions with local governments and citizens about coal, the proposed export terminals, and ways to mitigate the expected growth in rail traffic and resulting traffic jam issues.
(Glendive, MT – YPR) – A company that provides drilling fluids for the oil industry says transportation is the reason why it chose to locate its Bakken Oil operations in a small Eastern Montana community.
“We depend so much on trucking,” says Joe Bowen, area manager of The Mud Master’s Group. “That’s the only reason why we’re not in Billings.” He says four to five semi trucks a day, loaded with Mud Master products, leaves the Glendive facility daily for the Bakken oil fields.
Mud Masters provides drilling mud and other products. The company has facilities in Texas, Louisiana Oklahome, West Virginia, and now Montana. The Bakken oil fields in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota is the secondlargest oil play in the U.S.
Bowen says he had to convince his bosses to locate a facility in Glendive over Billings. According to the 2010 census, the population of the city of Glendive is 4,935 people, while the population of the city of Billings (the state’s largest city) is 104,180 people.
“I considered Billings hard,” says Bowen who still has a home in Billings, as well as in Glendive. “I lived in Billings when Mud Masters wanted to expand into North Dakota. I wouldn’t live in North Dakota. I’m from Montana. I live in Montana.”
“I’m just as close in Glendive to every drilling rig in the Bakken as a business in Williston, North Dakota is,” he says.
To illustrate his point, Bowen draws an equilateral triangle on the chalkboard in his Glendive office. At each point, he writes: Glendive, Williston, and Dickinson; on each line he writes 98 miles. By contrast, Billings is another 220 miles to the West of Glendive or at least 3 ½ hours of driving time on I-94.
“By the time a truck leaves Billings and comes to the Bakken and delivers, before the driver can get home he runs out of time,” Bowen says. The distance from Billings to Williston is about 320 miles or just over 5 hours via I-94. Then there’s additional time and distance to the drilling rigs that dot the oil fields.
Bowen says Billings has the infrastructure, housing, shopping and other amenities that the smaller communities of Glendive and other Eastern Montana communities don’t. “But we depend so much on trucking,” he says. “That’s the only reason we’re not in Billings.”
Bowen says Billings remains vital to his company, however, because of its airport. The Glendive office has eight full-time employees who live in the area, he says. The remaining 10 rotate in and out from Texas, Louisiana, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. All will fly into Billings and either drive or board Silver Airways (provided by Gulfstream International Airlines), the Essential Air Service provider to rural Montana.
(Billings, MT – YPR) - The chief architect of the Affordable Care Act says he wasn’t sitting in the U-S Supreme Court to hear the justices uphold the law. Instead Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) was working on passing a federal transportation bill.
“I was thinking of going over (to the Supreme Court) but frankly I have so much to do,” Baucus says. “I gotta work to get this highway bill passed.” He says sitting at the Court would be “very interesting. Historical. But not the best use of my time.”
Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He’s also a member of the subcommittee Conference Committee the current transportation bill which expires Saturday.
Baucus says he's pleased a deal could be reached even if it covers only about 2 1/2 years.
“That’s half a loaf. Usually highway bills are 5 or 6 years. That would be a whole loaf,” he says. A full re authorization would give better certainty to highway departments, contractors, and others to plan ahead, he says.
In reaching the compromise, Republicans on the conference committee gave up on two key points, including putting on a fast track a permit for the proposed Keystone X-L pipeline. Baucus also strongly supports that project.
“Am I disappointed? Yes. I am disappointed,” he says. “But look we got a highway bill. A highway bill absent Keystone is better than no highway bill at all.”
Baucus says the Keystone X-L pipeline project comes down to job creation for Montana and elsewhere and energy independence, “I think it’s a no brainer. It should be in there but it’s not. I’ll keep fighting for it.”
(Sidney, MT and Williston, ND – YPR) – The amount of semi-truck traffic in the Bakken oil field communities is stunning.
“It isn’t uncommon that you will come through here (intersection in Williston) and see that the trucks will be backed up for a mile,” says Williston Economic Development Executive Director Tom Rolfstad. “They all have to take a left hand turn here, so it gets to be a real bottleneck.”
Williston officials want to create a truck route to divert semi traffic around the community.
“You can see the ration of trucks here,” Rolfstad says. “We are approaching 40% truck traffic on our roads. The highway engineers say 12% truck traffic is considered to be high.”
The volume of the semi traffic is undermining the road beds under paved and gravel roads. The roads designed to handle just moderate truck and farm traffic, since both Sidney, Montana and Williston, North Dakota are agriculture-based communities.
Richland Economic Development Executive Director Leslie Messer in Sidney says in the Spring when gravel roads are slick and muddy, the farmers most likely will idle their tractors.
“This industry (oil) doesn’t stop,” she says. “They’re dragging. They’re pushing. They are pulling. They are thrashing the (road) beds if they can’t get in there.”
Messer says it will take about 2,200 semi loads to service 1 oil well over that well’s lifetime. Most of the activity is in the drilling phase when loads of water, sand, pipe, and other materials are delivered to the site.
She says some of the oil companies are repairing the damage they cause to the roads otherwise its up to local government as part of its road maintenance program.
“We’ve built lots of roads for Richland County. Glad to do so,” says Russell Atkins, area production manager of the Bakken Operations for Continental Resources. “We needed the road to that (oil) well.”
He says in instances where there is no road but Richland County had the right-of-way, Continental would build a road and leave the maintenance to the counties in Montana and North Dakota. The affected counties are looking to their respective state Capitols and the federal Transportation Rea-authorization bill to help pay for the costs of building and maintaining affected oil patch roads.
“All that we ask is once it is built up and the drilling activity has subsided please maintain it. We’re glad to build it,” he says. “We get a few that think, ‘well, you are just going to build it, maintain it, and do everything from now on.’ It doesn’t work quite like that,” Atkins says.
Atkins says the oil companies are working at a furious pace to lock up leases with production wells. He says 90% of the work remains. Atkins calls the Bakken oil play world class. He places this portion of the Williston Basin right up with reserves in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
“Our estimates of recoverable oil is 24 billion barrels. That’s 20 of oil and 4 of barrels of oil equivalent of natural gas. To do this is going to take 48,000 wells,” he says.
Besides all of the semi-truck activity needed to carry out that work, there’s also an increase of pick-up truck traffic, notes Williston Economic Development’s Tom Rolfstad.
“This is kinda a big ass pickup with a welding unit on the back,” says Rolfstad. “You kinda look like a wimp if you come here driving a Kia or a Subaru.”
(Sidney, MT and Williston, ND – YPR) - The Bakken oil fields brought an influx of people and activity to across Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. Oil industry officials say the Bakken reserves have made North Dakota the #2 oil producing state behind Texas.
The Sidney Area Chamber of Commerce says agriculture is the predominant industry in the northeast Montana community. Oil wells are often tucked among sugar beet or wheat fields.
Small agriculture communities, like Sidney near the Montana-North Dakota border, were not prepared for the rapid increase in population. There's a shortage of affordable houses for sale or rent. Even the local motels and hotels are full forcing many working in the oil patch to live in their vehicles, tents, campers or RV's
Some workers are able to find housing in "man camps," but only when they are on shift. The oil companies reserve rooms at the Williston North Lodge for workers during their shift. Workers shed their coveralls and work boots in the "mud room" at the lodge entrance.
The rooms resemble a college dorm room, with a bed, small table, a small closet for personal belongings, and there's a shared bathroom. Deluxe rooms are a little larger with a private bathroom. The lodge, run by Target Logistics, provides 24/7 dining, recreation room, wireless internet/computer room, convenience store, housekeeping, and self-serve laundry.
Economic development officials say the Bakken Oil development has also brought an increase in semi-truck traffic through Williston. Tom Rolfstad, executive director of economic development for the city of Williston, says 40% of the vehicles on the road are semis. "The highway engineers say that 12% truck traffic is considered to be high," he says.
Semi-truck traffic delivers pipe, water, and other materials needed to drill and maintain a well. Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota's Mineral Resources Division, recently said it can take up to 1,000 semi loads to drill and frack (hydraulic fracturing) each well in the Bakken oil play.
Semis are also used to transport crude from the production fields to rail loading facilities. The lack of pipeline capacity means companies are relying on other means to get crude to refineries.
The proposed Keystone X-L Pipeline project seeks to provide an "on-ramp" for Bakken crude to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
(Billings, MT-YPR) – The largest city and county in Montana decided to deal with the impact of possible increased coal train traffic locally rather than join the efforts of other communities in calling for a regional environmental study on the issue. Yellowstone County officials object to any study that is critical of coal.
"We need to look at this as an opportunity," says Yellowstone County Commission Chairman John Ostlund. "We have more coal than anybody in the world, countries around the world want to burn it. We need the jobs. We need the tax base. These are the greatest opportunities and problems to have that we could ever hope to have."
The Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council (YVCC), an affiliate of the environmental group Northern Plains Resource Council, recently asked Billings and Yellowstone County officials to ask to be included in an Environmental Impact Statement scoping hearing for the Cherry Point Port Terminal in Whatcom County, Washington.
The Helena City Commission recently agreed to write a letter to the U-S Army Corps of Engineers to look into increased rail traffic on Helena, the capital city, as it conducts an environmental review on the Cherry Point Port terminal.
YVCC’s Svein Newman asked Billings' Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC), a city-county transportation planning board, to join Helena.
“The issue faced by Billings is similar to the issue faced by Bozeman, Helena, Spokane, and more (communities),” he says. “And instead of over a dozen individual studies to arrive at similar conclusions it makes sense to focus on one (study), especially when it is not funded by county taxpayers.”
Asian customers are interested in buying more U-S coal, but the lack of port capacity is restricting shipments. If ports are expanded, or new ports built, coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming is the most direct and closest source via rail.
Opponents of coal port terminal expansion cite concern about the environmental effects of burning coal, the human health effects of coal dust blowing from rail cars, and the impact of increased coal trains on motor vehicle traffic. YVCC projects the number of coal trains passing through Billings could triple from 2009 figures to 40 trains per day because of the growing demand for U-S coal in Asia.
Billings officials, however, are not interested in conducting another rail traffic study. There have been 8 such studies, the most recent in 2004. Instead, they want staff to look at the recommendations from past studies, for example, whether signs to alert motorists when there’s a train blocking the road keep traffic flowing.
“Pardon me if I sound kinda blunt, but I think having a sign that says ‘train on tracks’ when you can actually see the train on tracks is kinda redundant,” says Greg Krueger, Development Director for the Downtown Billings Partnership. “It just says, ‘there’s a train on the tracks’ and prepared to be frustrated.”
PCC Chairman and Yellowstone County Commission Chairman John Ostlund laughed and asked if that should be on the sign.
“I think so,” replied Krueger. “But I do believe if we have signal upgrades that could interface with reader boards, that I’ve seen in other cities, that says ‘southbound traffic/train on tracks/turn left now.’ What I am saying is a train route that in essence takes you around the tracks.”
Other options that could be considered include: adding left turn lights on the main thoroughfares through Downtown Billings when there’s a train on the tracks and improving one downtown underpass so it could accommodate emergency vehicles.
Yellowstone County Commissioner Jim Reno calls these options “low-hanging fruit.” While being stuck at a rail crossing is an inconvenience, he says, it should be welcomed by the community. Reno says increased rail traffic points to a growing economy.
“We embrace the fact there’s additional landings at the airport. We embrace when we see more (sugar) beet cars. We embrace when we see unit trains of wheat and grain,” he says. “We should come at it (increased coal train traffic) from a positive view point as opposed to my impression that it came early on as an anti-carbon, anti-environmental. We should get past that and look at it as an opportunity that frankly some regions of this country would welcome the opportunity to have economic growth.”
Recently, the Yellowstone County Commission unanimously adopted a resolution formally declaring support for coal and coal based power and the expansion of ports on the West Coast to accommodate increased shipments Powder River Coal from Montana and Wyoming to customers in Asia.
The PCC did not formally take action on how to address traffic concerns through Billings from increased coal train traffic. But it indirectly told a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) to review the recommendations of past rail studies and determine: project prioritization based on projected train traffic, costs, funding sources, responsible party, and a time frame. The TAC recommendations would then be considered at a late date by the PCC.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Eight trail projects from across the country are being recognized for their outstanding use of money from the federal Recreational Trails Program (RTF) funds.
The 14th Annual Achievement Awards were chosen by the Coalition for Recreational Trails.
Winning trails meander through Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wyoming. See the full list below.
The awards will be handed out June 5, 2012 on Capitol Hill. The celebration is part of Great Outdoors Week 2012. Two states and members of Congress also will be recognized.
One of the winners is a multi-use trail in Billings, Montana. The Swords Park Trail, Phase 2 is on top of the sandstone cliffs that frame the north end of the state’s largest city.
“When you’re up on the trail system you have incredible views of the Yellowstone River valley, of Billings itself, and you can also see 2 mountain ranges in the distance – The Beartooth Mountains and the Pryor Mountains,” says Darlene Tussing, alternate modes coordinator for the city of Billings. “It really is a beautiful environment.”
The Montana trail is the winner in the Environment and Wildlife Compatibility category.
Phase 2 converted what was once a historic road bed and historic site for early settlers to the Yellowstone Valley. This includes Sacrifice Cliff and Skeleton Cliff, important to the Crow Indian Tribe. There’s also Yellowstone Kelly’s grave and Boot Hill, both tributes to early white settlers to the Yellowstone Valley.
The Montana trail project serves both motorized and non-motorized users. The Swords Park, Phase 2 also won the 2012 Montana State Parks “Trail of the Year Award.”
“Because we wanted to give people choices,” says Candi Beaudry, Director of the City-County Planning Department. “It’s not one mode over the other. We look at all users and that’s embodied in the city’s Complete Streets Policy.”
Funding for this project came from a variety of sources, including the RTP.
“It’s important for Congress to understand how programs passed and operated here in D-C have real life impact on opportunities for recreation at the grass roots level all across this country,” says Derrick Crandall, President of the American Recreation Coalition.
Other winners are:
• The Lombard Trail (Idaho) – Maintenance and Rehabilitation
The RTP is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration. It was created in 1991 and funding comes from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.
“The Congress said it’s only fair,” says Crandall. “Because a number of recreational trail interests, including: ATV’s, snowmobilers, motorcyclists and 4x4’s pay the federal gas tax on the fuel that they use in their recreational activities. It’s only fair that the money goes into the purposes that are directly benefiting recreation trails as opposed to paving roads or doing other kinds of traditional highway trust fund funded projects.”
Crandall says the RTF budget is about $84 million a year, a fraction of the $200 million collected each year from the roughly 18¢/gallon federal fuel tax from non-highway recreationists. Congress is working on a surface transportation reauthorization bill. Crandall is optimistic the Recreational Trails Program will continue to receive funding.
“While they (Senate and the House) may not agree on lots of things,” he says “They do seem to be in complete agreement on that (RTP funding).”