Orphan wells: Canada’s struggling oil industry leaves thousands abandoned

Greg Latimer’s ranch near Sounding Lake, Alberta, has 4,000 acres, 350 cattle — and more than a dozen idle or abandoned oil and gas wells.

Latimer, who took over the family ranch in the southeastern part of the oil-rich province in 2011, worries about leaks contaminating the groundwater and soil. He believes his cows have fallen ill after drinking from puddles near the wells. He and his partner, Marva Coltman, get headaches from the odors that some of them emit.

Neither Latimer, his father nor his grandfather were given a choice about whether to let oil and gas companies onto their property.

…“My grandfather came here in 1911 in the middle of the country to make a homestead,” Latimer said. “These guys came here and destroyed it. It isn’t fair.”

…[The] government slashed municipal property taxes on shallow gas wells last year by 35 percent. Some operators have stopped paying municipal property taxes to the tune of $129.8 million.

Under provincial law, oil and gas companies are responsible for plugging defunct wells and restoring the environment to its pre-drilling state. When the operators are bankrupt or insolvent, the wells are transferred to the industry-funded Orphan Well Association, which is tasked with decommissioning them.

As the energy sector has struggled, the association’s inventory has ballooned, from 162 wells in 2014 to 3,406 today.

…And the number could skyrocket, soon. Last year, both Trident Exploration and Houston Oil & Gas bit the dust, leaving behind a combined 6,100 wells and a $307.9 million cleanup bill. 

…As of December 2019, the energy regulator had $170.3 million to clean up potential oil and gas liabilities estimated at more than $22.5 billion, the figures show.

Orphan wells: Canada’s struggling oil industry leaves thousands abandoned – The Washington Post

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Trump Administration Suspends New Yorkers From Trusted Traveler Programs

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it will no longer allow New York state residents to enroll in programs intended to expedite international travel because of a state law that blocks immigration authorities from accessing motor vehicle records.

…In a statement released Thursday, the state’s attorney general, Letitia James, pointed out that more than a dozen other states and the District of Columbia share similar laws. As for New York itself, the top prosecutor vowed that the state “will not back down.”

“New Yorkers,” James said, “will not be targeted or bullied by an authoritarian thug.”

Trump Administration Suspends New Yorkers From Trusted Traveler Programs : NPR

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The consolations of rail travel

Trains may once have accelerated life but in our digital world they have the opposite effect: they slow one down. To see the landscape rolling by, or at night to see the lights passing and feel the wheels turning beneath one, is to travel consciously, mindful of the distance one is covering. 

…Trains can be fast, but there is nonetheless a meditative quality to travelling by them. Not always, of course: a train laden with boozy commuters is no one’s idea of a sanctuary. But take a long-distance train. …Wait for the hubbub of people finding their seats and storing their luggage to die down. Gaze out of the window as the landscape, dull or beautiful, moves by and you will find yourself in a tranquil middle space: the hills, roads and fields outside stimulating enough to provoke thought without being so distracting as to interrupt it.

The consolations of rail travel

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How Virginia’s $3.7 billion rail plan fits Amtrak’s long-term vision

With new routes and faster and more efficient service, the number of Amtrak trains operating in Virginia is expected to double by 2030.

…The state exemplifies Amtrak’s growth strategy of focusing on adding short-haul trips that compete with car rides and flights in dense urban corridors, they say.

…In recent years, Amtrak has been beefing up short-distance service across the country, advancing its vision to connect major metropolitan areas in regions undergoing significant growth and where there is little to no rail service, while fulfilling Americans’ growing desire for cost-efficient and more environmentally friendly travel options.

…Virginia, one of 18 states that sponsors Amtrak service, has some of the best-performing routes, officials said. Combined ridership for the four routes connecting Richmond and other major cities to Washington and the Northeast grew to 971,415 in 2019, from 844,698 the previous year — a 15 percent increase. That’s well above the average 2.4 percent increase among all state-supported lines and the 2.5 percent growth of Amtrak’s entire network.

“In just the 10 years since 2009, ridership has more than doubled on our Virginia corridors,” Anderson told members of Congress at a Nov. 13 hearing. “What these and our other very successful state-supported corridors have in common is that they offer multiple daily frequencies with trip times that are competitive with driving and flying.”

…In 2011, Virginia became one of only a few states to create a dedicated funding source for rail projects. The Virginia Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund gets .005 percent of the state’s retail sales and use tax, which equals about $50 million to $60 million annually.

…Increasing train service in the state makes sense, both for reducing traffic congestion and from an economic standpoint, officials and transportation experts say. A recent state study of the I-95 corridor estimates it would cost $12.5 billion to build one additional travel lane in each direction for 50 miles in the corridor.

How Virginia’s $3.7 billion rail plan fits Amtrak’s long-term vision – The Washington Post

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This is why the US still doesn’t have high-speed trains

The FRA should never have been asked to oversee the project, said Thomas Hart Jr, president of the pro-rail consulting group Rail Forward. It was inexperienced, needlessly bureaucratic, and had “neither the experience, the staff, nor the regulations” in place to make high-speed rail work. To Hart’s mind, the largest problems were strategic: The FRA “tried to do too much with too little” by spreading the money across the nation rather than targeting the best possible projects, while simultaneously shutting out small or minority-owned businesses. He also believes the federal government made a fatal misstep in allowing Amtrak to run the projects, rather than opening it up to more experienced foreign competitors. 

…“The question really is, for us as an industry and as a company, in being pragmatic,” he said. All over the country, there are underserved segments of around 300 miles which are ripe for high-quality rail, he added. “We don’t even need to spend money on necessarily expensive high-speed trains—just getting what we have today working well at a hundred miles an hour, which is very feasible, is really viable.” 

Europe might have some of the world’s best high-speed rail, but it also had a great network of slower, 80-mile-per-hour trains, said Harris. “We should aspire to that first. We can deliver that and make a lot of people happy, without spending $100 million.”

This is why the US still doesn’t have high-speed trains — Quartz

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