In the last few weeks, a great of attention has been focused on something called the “Dakota Access Pipeline.” Opponents of the pipeline claim that it will pollute the Standing Rock reservation’s water supply, desecrate historical sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and contribute to climate change. Protesters have set up a camp near the pipeline route. A few have attempted to halt construction by blocking the route and a series of confrontations last Saturday left six protesters, one security guard, and two guard dogs injured. Today, the federal court case that has been ongoing since July, when the pipeline was approved, reached a head today as a judge ruled in favor of the pipeline, denying an injunction to halt work. In response, the Obama administration announced that the Department of the Army had temporarily revoked authorization for pipeline construction on Corps of Engineers land around Lake Oahe, in the Dakotas near the contested section, until it could reevaluate the impact of the pipeline, and asked that construction be halted voluntarily within 20 miles of the lake.
So what’s going on? Do the anti-pipeline activists and the Obama administration have a point? A little background information and a bit of narrative is needed before we can answer that question.
The proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would be an underground pipeline running from North Dakota to Illinois, passing through South Dakota and Iowa along the way.
It’s also known as the Bakken Oil Pipeline, a name that makes its reason for existence obvious: the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the Three Forks Formation in North and South Dakota and Montana contain an estimated 7.4 billion barrels of oil (BBO) resources. That represents a treasure trove for the states in question, particularly North Dakota, and for US oil companies.
However, in part because of the failure of the Keystone XL Pipeline, oil produced in North Dakota currently relies on rail and truck transportation to reach the rest of the US. That’s expensive, particularly since the oil in the Bakken and Three Forks is already difficult to extract. Oil producers are always looking for ways to cut costs, but even more so now that the price of a barrel of oil is hovering right around the cost to produce a barrel of oil from the Bakken (and has been below it in the last year, such that some companies were losing $40/barrel). A pipeline could transport oil two to three times as efficiently, allowing the Bakken and Three Forks to remain viable even if the price of oil fails to recover.
Clearly, then, the pipeline makes sense for the oil companies involved. It also makes sense from the standpoint of oil consumers, especially in the US, since it allows US companies to continue operating even in the face of an oil glut and concomitant price decrease. That’s not the pipeline’s opponents’ objection, though.
The argument against the pipeline really has three main points: the pipeline would destroy Sioux historic sites, would damage the environment along the pipeline track, and would lead to more oil production, thus contributing to global warming.
The last of these is somewhat problematic. Taking for granted the fundamental assumption that oil consumption correlates with increased climate change, the argument still falls flat. Oil consumption is strongly correlated to both economic growth and oil price; however, expensive-to-extract oil like that in the Bakken plays a secondary role in controlling oil prices to Middle Eastern, particularly Saudi Arabian, production. What’s at issue is not so much how much oil will be consumed, but whether US companies will be able to produce that oil in the US while still turning a profit. That also weakens one of the common arguments for installing pipelines–that doing so will lower oil prices–but the simple, uncomfortable truth is that US oil production is a passenger, not the driver, in the global oil market.
Other environmental concerns carry a little more weight. Oil spills are a legitimate risk of oil pipelines, and it would be naive to think that the advanced technology Dakota Access, the company building the pipeline, boasts about will be enough to stop spills entirely. If we believe that God’s creation carries some value–and we should–it would be wise to think seriously about the possible results of building a pipeline. Despite the rhetoric from opponents of the pipeline, though, the Corps of Engineers’ analysis did not find a risk of major spills from the pipeline. Indeed, in addition to being vastly more efficient economically, oil pipelines are significantly safer than other forms of transport. For a given volume of oil, rail transport is nearly five times more likely to experience incidents than pipeline transport (0.049/thousand barrels vs. 0.227/thousand barrels, although only 0.007/thousand barrels and 0.035/thousand barrels, respectively, are in transit). Of those incidents, pipeline issues are more likely to result in greater spillage in aquatic environments, where the impact will be greater, while train accidents are more likely to result in fatalities. Even in a worst-case scenario for US oil producers, oil will continue to be produced in the Bakken, and will move out either by train or pipeline (truck transport is also possible, but is worse than the others in just about every way). Are more fatalities and more accidents better than fewer accidents with a higher environmental impact per accident? It doesn’t seem clear that the answer to that question is “yes,” but opponents of the pipeline are firmly entrenched in that position.
Finally, where the other two arguments have been objections to pipelines in general, the last is an objection to the specific route of this specific pipeline. Although the pipeline was carefully engineered not to pass through the Standing Rock Reservation, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe contend that the pipeline passes through a previously undiscovered Sioux burial site and passes close to the headwaters of the water supply for the reservation. They argue that the Army Corps of Engineers did not adequately consult them, as it was required to by law, when choosing the pipeline route–according to the tribe, instead of surveying the area, the pipeline’s planners relied on a 1985 survey that missed several important archeological finds entirely. If true, if Dakota Access and the Corps of Engineers failed to consult the tribe adequately, it would be a violation of the National Historic Preservation Act, and would render the pipeline’s permits where it crosses Corps land invalid. This is the gist of the lawsuit the Standing Rock Sioux brought against the Corps of Engineers back in July.
This argument is highly problematic, though, since Dakota Access carefully tailored its route to avoid cultural landmarks, not only relying on past archeological surveys, but also commissioning new archeological surveys, and rerouting the pipeline to avoid newly discovered historical sites 140 times in North Dakota alone. According to the court’s findings today, in the particular stretch in question the DAPL is actually engineered to pass through the same track as the preexisting Northern Border Gas Pipeline.
Within the disputed area around Lake Oahe, the DAPL remains within between 22 and 300 feet of the existing pipeline, and in the right of way of an overhead utility line. Further, both Dakota Access and the Corps consulted with Standing Rock extensively. On 30 September 2014, just as the plan became public and before the route was finalized, Dakota Access met with the Standing Rock Sioux to present the pipeline, and in the next months held multiple meetings with the Standing Rock Sioux’s Tribe Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) regarding sites that might be of interest to the tribe. The Corps was even more proactive, first informing the Standing Rock on 17 September 2014, before the pipeline was public and before Dakota Access had formally requested a permit to cross Corps land, and requesting tribal input at that time. Over the course of the next one and a half years, a comical sequence of attempts by the Corps to reach out to the tribe, followed by disinterested rebuff from tribal leaders, marked the entirety of the interaction between the Corps and Standing Rock. At one point the tribe insisted that it wanted to consult, but wouldn’t take part until the Corps district commander met with the tribe’s chairman on the reservation . . . but they made this demand only weeks after canceling just such a meeting, and subsequently refused to schedule the meeting. It wasn’t until January 2016 that Standing Rock started to respond to Corps’ requests to take an active role in the process, arguing that at least 350 sites in the path of the pipeline in North Dakota had not been identified, that the Corps’ impact assessment was flawed, and that they hadn’t been informed early enough, despite having been informed before Dakota Access even started cultural surveys. The tribe then refused to take part in formal consultation until the Corps also required that Dakota Access go through the permitting process for the portions of the pipeline on private land, over which the Corps had no jurisdiction. After a few more exchanges with the tribe, in which Standing Rock complained repeatedly about the process but did not identify cultural sites within the pipeline corridor, the Corps approved the pipeline on 25 July 2016, and Standing Rock requested an injunction two days later.
Subsequently, Tim Mentz, a former Standing Rock THPO was invited by a private landowner to survey around the pipeline route on his land. On 2 September Mentz discovered a number of significant cultural sites, including a previously unknown stone monument allegedly marking the burial site of a tribal leader. The day after, Dakota Access graded the area containing the stone monument, although the other sites remained untouched, and it was this that triggered the confrontations that left six protesters and a guard injured. The same day, Standing Rock filed a request for a restraining order to halt construction. In response to the Standing Rock request for a restraining order, Dakota Access noted that their route was tortuous in that area precisely so that it would avoid the cultural sites noted by Mentz, with the exception of the “stone monument,” which, since it lay in the area already graded, trenched, filled, and reclaimed for the Northern Border Gas Pipeline, was unlikely to have been ancient. The court made no factual determination regarding the injunction, but received assurance from Dakota Access that construction had already been halted in the remainder of the contested area while waiting for a the court’s decision regarding the injunction. That came today, and it was a resounding victory for Dakota Access and the Corps.
The argument made by the Standing Rock Tribe that Dakota Access and the Corps of Engineers did not consult the Standing Rock Sioux adequately simply falls flat on its face. That it’s even being made is comical, and it can be rejected upon any examination of the evidence. For those who value God’s creation, however, the other arguments cannot be rejected so easily. There is something genuinely valuable in the world God has given us, and it should not be destroyed needlessly. If it could be shown that the pipeline did that, there would still be a valid case for opposing DAPL, and yet it doesn’t appear that that case exists. The Corps has already required heavy safety precautions, including double-walled piping, near bodies of water in the region, and even without those measures, pipelines are already the safest method of overland oil transport.
In short, although in the interest of being good stewards of creation and good neighbors we ought to consider the opposing arguments, once we drill down into the details of the case, there’s no compelling reason to oppose the DAPL, whether approached from the standpoint of respecting the things our neighbors’ value or of preserving God’s creation.