Let's talk about facts- Dakota Access, the oil industry, and the environment

It’s well past time for the energy industry to engage meaningfully with the public. I don’t pretend to be the voice of the industry or to represent everyone in it, but I’ve made a career here and it’s painful to witness the gaps between public perception and industry hype, with facts usually somewhere in between. I’m starting a series here to engage in a conversation about these topics; I hope you’ll share with friends, colleagues, and anyone who is curious about how the industry works, what the headlines mean, and what our nation’s energy future will look like.

This post begins with a discussion of the safety of crude oil pipelines and the permitting and review process. If you’d like to skip directly to the discussion on Dakota Access, click here.

Crude oil pipelines in general- as of August, the US refined 16.6 million barrels of crude oil per day, most which is transported via pipeline. Other options are barge or tanker, which are limited due to available waterways, and rail cars. Analysis of spills from pipelines vs. rail cars shows that spill incidents from rail cars happen much more often (4.5 times as often), and are much more likely to kill people than pipeline incidents (712 injuries and 94 deaths per year vs 3 injuries and 1 death per year). However, spills from pipelines, though rarer, tend to be larger and harder to clean, and more likely to affect water. This Forbes article summarizes the dilemma nicely, though I’d caution against extrapolating too much from the rail data. At the peak in 2014, crude by rail movements totaled just over 1 million barrels per day, a small fraction of the total transported via pipeline, and unlikely to scale to a much larger quantity without an unacceptable level of derailments, crashes, and deaths.

So, pipelines are still the most-used, least likely to harm people, and most scalable way to transport all that crude oil. No wonder that RBN Energy lists a total of 19 crude oil pipeline projects currently in development or under construction right now, including Keystone XL and Dakota Access.

The transition to renewables is important, and I’ll address the numbers later in this piece. But even as we reduce our crude oil consumption, it will still be a mainstay of our economy for some years to come. Our only rational choice is to do our very best to protect the environment while facilitating the safe transport of these products.

Environmental Review Process. Shouldn’t there be a process wherein a company wanting to build a pipeline must commission an environmental study? There is. Shouldn’t companies also be required to gather information from the community and stakeholders and change the route if it’s unacceptable to landowners?  They are. Shouldn’t there be government oversight of pipeline construction on sensitive lands? There is. Shouldn’t companies try to build pipelines in existing corridors instead of spreading out everywhere and disturbing more land? They do. Shouldn’t there be ongoing oversight of pipeline maintenance to ensure that accidents are as rare as possible? There is. I’ll spare you an exhaustive description of the oil pipeline approval process, but here’s a brief overview. It’s not comprehensive but meant to give an idea of the steps involved.

1.       Filling with the state Public Utilities Commission to determine a need for the pipeline

2.       Calculation and filing of a proposed “siting” or route for the pipeline with the respective states through which the line passes

3.       State review to determine compliance with applicable state statutes

4.       For routes involving public lands such as BLM, filing with those bodies to determine if proposed route is available for Right of Way

5.       Leasing right of way from landowners of non-public land (eminent domain is not always available to oil pipeline builders)

6.       For routes crossing public land and with possibility of affecting surface waters, obtaining approval from the Corps of Engineers, which developed guidelines with the EPA to determine compliance with the Clean Water Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and other statutes as applicable.

7.       Though not always required, public comment periods are often held, stakeholders are consulted, and routes amended. (for example, this pipeline just filed 40 route amendments for its upcoming construction and this pipeline filed 33 deviations after landowner and regulatory feedback)

8.       The Corps of Engineers returns an Environmental Assessment, which contains requirements if the project is to go forward, and a statement of other impact to be mitigated.

9.       Company files required plans such as Spill models and Integrity Management plans with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

10.   Construction begins

11.   Pipeline inspected and approved for service

For a greenfield pipeline (not an expansion of an existing line), this process can take anywhere from 4-7 years. Very often, companies will try to site in an existing pipeline right of way, especially when concerned with federal lands and river crossings, to expedite the process and control costs.

More information can be found here, in a summary of federal and state regulatory authority by the Congressional Research Service. An interesting and relevant fact here is that there’s no single federal agency that regulates all crude oil pipeline construction. The Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over areas in which a pipeline crosses federal lands or may impact surface waters. In the case of natural gas pipelines, the process is centralized and coordinated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, rather than the individual states and the Corps of Engineers.

DAPL Discussion

Dakota Access Pipeline- Where did things go wrong?

First, let me say that issues such as colonialism, tribal sovereignty, and rights of indigenous people are not only central to this discussion, but well outside my scope of expertise. My hope is to clarify the facts around the energy industry and environmental questions, and perhaps the conversation will shift to more meaningfully cover those issues.

Protesters on and near the Standing Rock reservation are naming issues like water quality, destruction of sacred lands, and overall environmental degradation as reasons for the effort to stop construction of the pipeline. Here are some facts from public sources on the process:

How was the pipeline's route determined? From the Environmental Assessment provided by the Corps of Engineers:

Dakota Access utilized a sophisticated and proprietary Geographic Information System (GIS)-based routing program to determine the pipeline route based on multiple publicly available and purchased datasets. Datasets utilized during the Project routing analysis included engineering (e.g., existing pipelines, railroads, karst, powerlines, etc.), environmental (e.g., critical habitat, fault lines, state parks, national forests, brownfields, national registry of historic places, etc.), and land (e.g., fee owned federal lands, federal easements, dams, airports, cemeteries, schools, mining, tribal lands, and military installations, etc.). Each of these datasets was weighted based on the risk (e.g., low, moderate, or high based on a scale of 1,000) associated with crossing or following certain features. In general, the route for the pipeline would follow features identified as low risk, avoid or minimize crossing features identified as moderate risk, and exclude features identified as high risk.

In addition, water crossings were sited to be “co-located” with existing pipelines to minimize impact. In this case, there is already a pipeline crossing the Missouri River at the proposed DAPL crossing in at Lake Oahe, just north of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. It’s a natural gas pipeline called Northern Border and it was built in 1982.

Is the pipeline on tribal land? No. This technical fact isn’t in dispute. The pipeline will cross the Missouri River at an easement owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers approximately a half mile north of the reservation boundary. Tribal leaders argue that the route nonetheless disturbs and degrades sites sacred to the tribe.

Did anyone review the possible impact on the water? Yes. The US Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with determining compliance with the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. The requirements contained in those were developed in conjunction with the EPA. Here are the requirements listed in the Environmental Assessment if the project is to go forward:

a. Dakota Access must conduct full scale open water and full scale winter/ice exercises at Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe. A full scale exercise will occur once every 3 years (triennial cycle) with the location and type of exercise occurring on alternating schedules (e.g. open water exercise at Oahe the first triennial cycle, followed by winter exercise at Lake Sakakawea the following triennial cycle, followed by a winter exercise at Lake Oahe the following triennial cycle, etc.). The first exercise will occur within the first 3 years after the pipeline becomes operational.
b. To facilitate Corps staff involvement, Dakota Access must notify the Corps Environmental Compliance Coordinators at the Omaha District Office, Oahe and Garrison Project Offices at least ninety (90) days prior to initiation of the training exercises. Dakota Access must also solicit the participation of key stakeholders (federal, state, local, and Tribal) in these exercises.
i. Within one year of operation of the pipeline, Dakota Access must provide for an allweather access and collection point downstream of the HDD crossing at Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. Dakota Access must provide an equipment storage facility on nonfederal lands that includes a fenced permanent storage area for winter and open water spill response equipment. The storage facility should be placed in a strategic location and near existing facilities that would support access to the water. Dakota Access will coordinate with the Corps and any other applicable stakeholders to obtain all necessary permits and approvals prior to construction for any ground disturbing activities associated with these facilities. The storage facility should contain sufficient response equipment at a minimum to mitigate an unintended worst case release for this crossing.

Did anyone consult the tribes? Yes. Tribal consultation is a “key obligation” of the Corps of Engineers, which issues approval for crossing of federal lands and waterways. Compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act is a condition of approval. According to the Corps’ website, consultation began in 2014, and

USACE representatives, including the Omaha District Commander met with consulting parties (Tribes; State and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices, the ACHP, and interested parties) more than 250 times [according to the USACE Environmental Assessment Administrative Record]. USACE met with tribal leaders on several occasions, attended comprehensive consultation meetings with representatives from numerous Tribes; have met with individual Tribes, and have attempted to accommodate specific requests.

Additionally, the North Dakota Public Utilities commission spent 11 months on its review process, including holding public hearings and identifying cultural resources to be protected. According to the commissioner, the route "was altered 140 times to avoid cultural resources", including Native American artifacts.

Are pipeline spills and ruptures common? Somewhat. Our energy infrastructure is aging just like our roads and bridges and needs attention. A Time magazine article cites a PHMSA statistic of 3,300 incidents of leaks and ruptures at oil and gas pipelines since 2010. That’s more than 1 per day. Definitely a shocking number, but there’s some perspective to be gained here. There are 2.5 million miles of natural gas gathering and transmission pipelines, and 72,500 miles of crude oil pipelines in the US, plus other pipelines for refined products and biofuels. Since this discussion is focused on crude oil, it’s more useful to isolate that data, which the PHMSA reports as 1186 incidents since 2010, of which 398 qualified as “significant”, meaning a release of 5 barrels or more of highly volatile crude, or 50 barrels or more of other liquids. Roughly that means that each crude pipeline mile has had a 0.5% chance of having a significant spill since 2010. Still unacceptable, and we can do better. The PHMSA has proposed new safety regulations for natural gas and crude oil pipelines.

The PHMSA (which is under the Department of Transportation) and the Corps of Engineers are tasked with a big job and like many government agencies, are likely underfunded and understaffed. These are the people currently tasked with protecting the water, not for just particular groups, but for the entire country.

Transition to Renewables

All the data about spills, crashes and deaths is upsetting, and gives a lot of fuel (so to speak) to the argument for the need to shift to cleaner resources ASAP. The good news is, it’s happening. The bad news is that it will still take time. The US government has been subsidizing solar and wind technology for decades, and it’s only now beginning to pay off in a big way. Aggressive renewable energy goals set by states are also starting to show major gains.

Solar. Utility-scale solar is now cost-competitive with coal and natural gas. The Solar Energy Industries Association shows 15 Gigawatts of solar projects now operating, but another 42 Gigawatts currently in development or under construction. (the EIA shows a base of 10 gigawatts with an expected 27 GW in 2017, for an average annual growth rate of 39%)

Wind. Similarly, wind generation has found its stride, thanks in part to the ongoing development of highly efficient transmission lines, to move power from the vast open tracts where wind blows and sun shines, to places where people turn on the lights and crank up the A/C.

Much of these gains are coming at the expense of coal, which is rapidly losing market share due to existing state and federal emissions regulations, the threat of new regulation (in the form of the Clean Power Plan), and lack of price competitiveness with natural gas. Coal-fired power plants are being retired at an unprecedented rate. According to the EIA, 60 gigawatts of coal power generation is projected to have been retired by 2020.

Ultimately, we are gaining momentum toward a healthier mix of fuels, and leading the world in development of renewable energy technology. We also have drawn focus to our processes regarding pipeline construction and safety, and are hopefully gaining support and resources for the agencies tasked with regulating those issues. I hope that the conversation around DAPL leads to support and allocation of resources for PHMSA's new proposals.

Again, I want to be clear that the human issues at stake here are paramount and should supersede debate on the technical facts. The support for so many at Standing Rock, and the fact that people are willing to spend a North Dakota winter gaining attention for their cause, means that this is a larger issue than a single pipeline. 


Note: all sources quoted herein are government or public data gatherers, articles based on public data, or independent researchers with verifiable data. Please feel free to check and verify all information.



Danielle Sanduskypipelines, ETP, DAPL