Dakota Access Pipeline Victory May Only Be Temporary

Dakota Access Pipeline
Oil Pipeline Construction (Wikipedia)

Protestors trying to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota were victorious on December 4, 2016, when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers refused to permit the pipeline to carry dirty Canadian tar sands oil beneath Lake Oahe.  The U.S. State Department had previously approved the pipeline with a controversial determination that it wouldn’t substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The protests against the DAPL began in April when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the Sacred Stone Camp to accommodate pipeline protestors near the mouth of the Cannonball River, where it empties into the lake. The primary objective of the protestors was to protect the lake from oil spills because it’s the source of the tribe’s water supply.

They used the slogan, “Water is Life.” But their protest soon grew into much more, and became a worldwide focal point for indigenous rights and climate change activists. Thousands of people joined the camp, including representatives from hundreds of tribes, making it the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. About 2,000 veterans of the U.S. military also traveled to the camp intent on forming a human shield to protect the protestors from police attacks.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The Corp of Engineers explained they were denying a pipeline easement beneath the lake so they could conduct a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) in which alternative routes would be explored. An EIS is the most rigorous type of environmental study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970. NEPA requires federal agencies to complete environmental studies of all their projects, using a public participation process that analyzes the environmental effects of various alternatives.

The Corp of Engineers has a say in whether a pipeline can be permitted beneath Lake Oahe because it has jurisdiction over public waterways and the lake is a reservoir on the Missouri River. The Corp had already completed an environmental assessment (EA) for the DAPL, a less rigorous type of NEPA study that’s typically used for projects with fewer significant issues. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation considered an EA to be inadequate for this project, and asked the Corp to complete an EIS.

The incoming Trump administration, however, will probably try to make the Corp reverse their decision to conduct an EIS, or even worse, work with the Republican-controlled Congress to revoke or eviscerate NEPA. This would have serious consequences on U.S. public lands administered under the multiple use doctrine by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manages the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands – comprising about 193 million acres. The BLM, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages about 30 million acres, including 221 wilderness areas and 23 national monuments. NEPA is the primary mechanism by which Americans participate in the management of these lands because it requires federal land management agencies to conduct publicly reviewed environmental studies for their plans and projects. Without NEPA, the public would have little or no effective input on proposed mining operations, drilling operations, timber cuts, recreational activities, or livestock grazing schemes.

The scope of the potential danger is best illustrated by taking a closer look at the situation in regards to livestock grazing on public lands. The BLM administers more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments, while the Forest Service has almost 6,000 grazing permittees. Public lands grazing is, by far, the most ubiquitous use of U.S. public lands, occurring on more than 200 million acres, mostly in the West. Subsequently, it’s also the commercial activity that inflicts the most widespread ecological damage on public lands. Even with NEPA, the public typically gets to review and comment on a grazing operation just once every 10 years – the term of a federal grazing permit. Without NEPA, even that modest opportunity would be gone.

But death of NEPA as we know it would do more than threaten the ecological health of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands. As mentioned above, a NEPA study must also be conducted when a proposed project might adversely affect a public waterway, even when the project is located on private land.

These are just some of the examples of the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s often been referred to as the environmental Magna Carta because its stated purpose is to “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation.” If the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are allowed to neutralize NEPA, the U.S. will have crossed over an ideological threshold to a dark domain where the only thing that really matters is money.

Update

In January of 2017 newly elected President Donald Trump issued an executive order to make the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers reverse their decision under the Obama administration to complete a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) of alternative routes for the DAPL, and then had them issue a permit to allow the pipeline to be drilled beneath Lake Oahe.

On June 14, 2017, federal judge James Boasberg ruled that the Corp of Engineers was, indeed, required to complete an EIS for the DAPL on the Standing Rock reservation. The pipeline, however, had already been built and the judge didn’t order it to be shut down while the EIS is completed.

On November 8, 2018, a federal judge in Montana halted construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline after finding that the EIS the Trump administration completed for the project completed was inadequate.

Republican Energy Policies Lack Foresight

dead republican elephantOne of the first things House Republicans did after their party took control of the U.S. Senate in the 2014 elections was to pass legislation authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Congressional Republicans remain fixated on approving the pipeline despite the fact that the recent drop in oil prices threatens the economic viability of the Canadian tar sands oil industry that wants to use it. The House bill to authorize the pipeline failed in the Senate, which is still under Democratic control until the newly elected senators are sworn in. But Republicans vowed to get it approved after they take control in January.

Another way Republican politicians have shown their affection for fossil fuel energy is by voicing their opposition to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The plan’s goal is to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants by an estimated 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This would be accomplished primarily by getting power plants to shift from burning coal to natural gas, which is cheaper and burns much cleaner. U.S. power plants account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s CO2 emissions and the Earth’s atmospheric CO2 levels have risen to their highest levels in the last 800,000 years, primarily from humans burning fossil fuels for energy. Because CO2 is a greenhouse gas, this has contributed to the recent phenomenon of global warming, and the resultant ongoing climate changes. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for 2014 recently confirmed that the effects of human-caused climate change are widespread and serious, already affecting every aspect of human life.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a first draft of the Clean Power Plan in June of 2014. It proposed state-by-state carbon emissions rate reduction targets, and offered a flexible framework under which states may meet those targets. Republicans have denounced the plan as a “war on coal”, despite the fact that public opinion polls show most Americans support Obama’s initiative. Also, more than 200 U.S. companies signed a letter supporting the EPA’s proposals, and Native American tribes with reservations near coal-fired power plants have expressed their support too.

Arizona Republicans have been especially critical of the Clean Power Plan because it calls for their state to achieve at least a 52 percent reduction in power plant CO2 emissions by 2030. They say that’s unfair because it’s a higher percentage reduction than almost every other state in the country. They’ve also been sympathetic to claims by local power company officials that it would be “impossible” for them to switch to burning natural gas as quickly as the draft plan requires, even though several gas pipelines already crisscross the state.

It seems, unfortunately, that Arizona Republicans and some of the local power companies have no intention of working on plans to switch from coal to natural gas as soon as possible, and are determined to resist the EPA. They will argue that it’s a matter of cost, or a violation of states’ rights, but I suspect that many of them still don’t believe that human-caused climate change is a reality.

On the national level, if Congressional Republicans really want to improve the economy by authorizing pipelines, they should show some foresight and pass legislation to promote the construction of pipelines that can supply natural gas to power plants.

Updates

On March 28, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring a review of Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

On October 10 EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a proposed rule to repeal the Clean Power Plan. The proposal must go through the federal government’s public rulemaking process.

On June 1, 2018, Republican President Donald Trump announced he had instructed U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry to “prepare immediate steps” to keep unprofitable coal-fired and nuclear energy plants from closing. A broad coalition of environmental and business groups responded that it was illegal and would force consumers to pay more for electricity.

Stop the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline

Dakota Access Pipeline
(Wikipedia)

The U.S. State Department recently released an environmental assessment that concluded the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska, would not substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions. The reason for this, the report claimed, was that a pipeline would cause less greenhouse gas emissions than moving the oil by train or truck, and it would be a safer method of moving it too. Their conclusions have encouraged many people to demand that President Obama approve the pipeline’s construction as soon as possible.

Sending oil through a pipeline might be the safest method of transporting it, but things can still go wrong. In 2010, for instance, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy leaked oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was a heavy crude oil, called bitumen, from the Canadian tar sands where the oil for the Keystone XL pipeline would come from. It sank to the bottom of the river and the cleanup closed 35 miles of the river for a year and cost more than $750 million. Questions about the efficacy of the cleanup and the safety of the chemicals that were used remain unanswered.

But pipeline safety isn’t the only issue to consider. Extracting oil from tar sands is a very nasty business. For example, its extraction can require strip mines, create dangerous concentrations of heavy metals, and release poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas. The in-situ method of extracting the oil, wherein steam, solvents, and/or hot air are injected into the sands, results in large tailings ponds of toxic water. In 2007 these tailings ponds covered an area of approximately 19 square miles in Canada. A recent National Wildlife Federation report found that exposure to the ponds has killed at least 43 different species of birds, including more than 2,000 ducks.

The State Department’s report also admitted that extracting oil from tar sands creates about 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional oil production methods because it can require more water and energy. But the construction of the pipeline wouldn’t have any effect on those emissions, the report found, because they would still occur without the pipeline. But the report’s analysis that the tar sands oil industry would continue to grow assumed there would be higher oil prices in the future. This is questionable considering the increases in oil production elsewhere, the growing number of fuel efficient vehicles, and the fewer number of young people choosing to own a car. The report’s conclusions are further clouded by the ongoing State Department Inspector General’s investigation to see if the contractors hired to assess the project for the federal government had financial ties to TransCanada – the company that wants to build the pipeline.

The U.S. cannot control the Canadian tar sands oil industry, but we shouldn’t be encouraging it. Claims by pipeline proponents that the industry will continue to develop with or without the pipeline don’t make any sense. If that were the case, then why are the Canadians so keen on getting the pipeline approved? Moving the oil by train or truck would obviously be more expensive, making tar sands oil less profitable.

I bet that many of the conservatives who support the pipeline’s construction also like to preach that the government “shouldn’t pick economic winners and losers”. But apparently that doesn’t apply to the oil industry. If granting hundreds of miles of pipeline right-of-way across three U.S. states isn’t giving preferential treatment to a business, then I don’t know what is.

Updates

On February 19, 2014, a county judge in Nebraska judge has rejected a state law that would have granted oil pipeline developer TransCanada eminent domain powers to acquire private property in that state to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

On November 6, 2016, President Barak Obama announced that TransCanada’s application for a permit to complete the Keystone XL pipeline had been rejected because it, “would not serve the national interests of the United States.”

On March 17, 2017, newly elected President Donald Trump forced the U.S. State Department to give its stamp of approval to the Keystone XL pipeline, claiming that it wouldn’t contribute to climate change since so many other countries were already reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

On September 10, 2018, the Fort Belknap Indian Community of Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota announced they were suing the Trump administration for failing to adhere to treaties and and conduct  adequate environmental analyses of the pipeline. They asked a federal judge in Montana to rescind the pipeline’s 2017 permit and block any further construction.