Standing with Standing Rock

pipeline1It seems that the Standing Rock protests have finally had the impact the protesters desired. The Army Corps of Engineers has denied the necessary easements for the construction to continue through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. This decision come on the heels of the arrival (or planned arrival) of an estimated 2000 US military veterans to support the protests. There is no way to know if that specific event impacted the decision or if it is just a coincidence, but folks are jubilant about the veterans’ arrival and the decision nonetheless.

This does not mean that there will be no pipeline, only that it will not be completed along the intended route. For now… We can’t predict what might change with the new administration in January, but we can presume that they will be less concerned about environmental impacts and speculate that they will be less concerned about issues related to the sacred lands of Native Americans. (We also know that President-Elect Trump owned a stake in Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline and poised to make the most profit from its completion, based on forms filed in May of 2016.) Most of this pipeline is already constructed. Is it a bad thing in and of itself? Energy Transfer Partners provides the following regarding the benefits of the pipeline:

The purpose of the Dakota Access Project is to safely transport U.S. crude oil from the Bakken/Three Forks formations in North Dakota to a terminus near Patoka, Illinois to support U.S. consumers’ energy needs. The U.S. still imports half of the oil it consumes per day and DAPL will provide a critical link to help close the gap between what we produce as a country and what we consume as we work to be truly independent of energy from unstable regions of the world. Every barrel of crude oil produced in the United States directly displaces a barrel of imported foreign oil. In addition, the Dakota Access Pipeline will reduce the amount of crude oil shipped by truck and by rail and increase the amount shipped by pipeline. Since pipelines are statistically the safest and most reliable mode of transporting crude, DAPL will improve safety to the public and environment and free up rail capacity for the transportation of crops and other commodities currently constrained by crude oil cargos.

That’s an interesting thought, but not one that holds up to much scrutiny. Slate published an article calling many of these claims into question, most significantly claims related to increased domestic oil production. It seems that future drilling in the Bakken/Three forks area of North Dakota (the origin of the oil to be shipped via the Dakota Access Pipeline) is prohibitively expensive based on current market demand and crude prices. That means this pipeline will have no impact on the amount of oil being moved or refined at the destination. What it will do is provide a cheaper way to move the oil, resulting in higher profits for Energy Transfer Partners. Economic impacts outside of this will be negligible once construction is complete.

If the pipeline won’t actually impact our use of foreign oil and won’t create a meaningful economic stimulus for the states, counties, or towns through which it runs, then there isn’t much of an up-side beyond corporate profits. What about downsides? Environmentalists are concerned about the safety of the pipeline and its likelihood to pollute sources of water. Are these concerns justified? Maybe. CNN reported that there were 132 “significant” spills in 2015 (though this was in relation to pipelines carrying refined products). That seems like a lot, and doesn’t count anything below the level of “significant,” but the same article asserts that pipelines are the safest way to move petroleum products across the country. It seems that the big issue with regard to spills has to do with the age of and materials used to build many existing, pre-safety-regulation pipelines. It is possible that the Dakota Access Pipeline will carry significantly less risk. The Army Corps of Engineers had previously considered running the pipeline north of Bismarck, North Dakota, but abandoned the idea for several reasons, including “proximity to wellhead source water protection areas that are avoided to protect municipal water supply wells.” This has led many environmentalists and protesters to believe that, even with improvements regulatory requirements and construction materials, there is significant risk.

In my opinion, the decision not to run this through the Standing Rock lands is a good decision. There is no need to perpetuate the history of the US government reneging on agreements with Native Americans; their grounds and our treaties should be respected and honored. Relocating the pipeline will incur additional project costs, but Energy Transfer Partners can expect to recoup the additional costs quickly upon pipeline completion. At this point, they could expect more losses from continued delays and altercations with protesters. (They haven’t been 100% peaceful – they have set fire to construction equipment on a couple of occasions.) It’s best for all parties for this pipeline to have this last section relocated.