What’s Going on with the Dakota Access Pipeline?

by Benjamin Studebaker

There are protests in North Dakota over the half-complete Dakota Access Pipeline. The plan is for the DAP to carry 400,000 barrels of oil per day from North Dakota to existing pipeline infrastructure in Illinois. This is about half the capacity of the larger Keystone XL Pipeline, which President Obama cancelled in response to protests from environmental groups. While Keystone was planned to transport Canadian shale oil, the DAP is a domestic pipeline transporting American fracking oil. Because it is a domestic pipeline, regulatory standards are not as high for the DAP, and this has made it easier for the pipeline to secure the relevant permits. While there has been some media coverage, the DAP protests have been pushed to the periphery of the American political agenda by the US presidential race, which has at this point devolved entirely into horse race reporting–who is winning, why they are winning, what the loser needs to do to turn things around, etc.–with no serious policy emphasis. This does the issue a disservice, so I’d like to take a closer look at it.

An estimated 2,000 to 4,000 people are participating in the DAP protests. Unlike the Keystone XL protests, which were largely driven by the environmental movement, the DAP protests are an alliance of two discrete groups:

  1. Native Americans
  2. Environmentalists

These two groups are not protesting for the same reasons and do not necessarily share the same objectives.

The Native Americans do not necessarily oppose the pipeline in principle but do object to the location of a specific stretch of planned line running under the Missouri River very near to a Sioux reservation. They seem to have two objections–one is an identity politics objection that Native Americans are generally not shown equal concern by the government and the other is that if the pipeline leaks, they fear the tribe’s drinking water might be contaminated. Their lawyers argue that the law requires that the Sioux be consulted about the pipeline’s cultural impact (though they do not claim to have the power to veto the line outright). Because the Sioux are objecting to the location of the line rather than to pipelines in general, their protest is a form of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). Unsurprisingly, they claim the support of non-natives who live along the Missouri River and also do not want the line near them. The trouble with NIMBYism is that if there’s going to be a pipeline, it has to cross the Missouri River at some point, and wherever it crosses that river there are going to be people who may be negatively affected. NIMBYists don’t argue that no one would should be negatively affected, they just want to pass the negative consequences on to someone else. It’s a form of political hot potato. That said, it would be deeply objectionable if the line were deliberately built near the reservation as a form of discrimination against the Sioux. If there’s evidence that an alternative path would potentially affect fewer people, a satisfactory explanation would need to be offered as to why that path was not chosen. I have not yet encountered any evidence that the line was planned in a way that discriminates against the Sioux, but if such evidence were out there it would need to be taken seriously.  Here’s a map of where the line, the river, and the reservation are located, as well as the full path of the DAP:

Environmentalists have a broader agenda–they object to the building of new oil pipelines in principle for two reasons–one is that leaks along pipelines can contaminate local areas and the other is that building pipelines makes it easier to transport oil and thereby contributes to its economic advantages over clean energy sources. By allowing the construction of infrastructure that facilitates oil and gas, we are effectively subsidizing those industries. To prevent oil and gas from being burned and contributing to carbon emissions, environmental activists believe we need to drive up the cost of extracting and transporting fossil fuels while lowering the cost of cleaner sources.

The problem with the environmental arguments is that if the pipeline is abandoned, energy companies will probably not leave the oil and gas in the ground. Instead, they will transport it by rail. In 2014, the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs carried out an analysis of the likely alternatives to the Keystone XL line. They found that oil firms would probably put the oil on trains. Generally speaking I like trains–they’re much more efficient than trucks–but the government found that the trains would produce more emissions than the pipeline would:

Keystone Emissions Comparison

The trains were also projected to spill more barrels than the pipeline:

Keystone Spill Comparison

I had to shrink this image quite a bit for space, so if you’re having trouble reading it the number of barrels released per year for Keystone was estimated at 518, while the rail alternatives ranged from 1,335 to 4,633. So the oil still gets pumped out of the ground, more diesel fuel is burned running the trains, and more oil is spilled in train accidents. And sometimes during those train accidents the oil cars explode in populated areas and kill people. That looks like this:

Transporting oil by rail has become massively more popular in recent years–more oil was spilled by trains in 2013 than in the entire period from 1975 to 2012. In the last few years, the number of barrels transported within the United States has grown from less than 2 million barrels to more than 25 million:

Oil by Rail

So we should be seriously concerned that in spite of good intentions, efforts to block pipelines are just moving the problem over onto railways.

A more effective environmental strategy requires policies that directly raise the price of burning coal, oil, and gas and lower the cost of cleaner alternatives. That means a carbon tax and government subsidies for wind, solar, and nuclear. It could also mean banning extraction techniques like fracking that dramatically expand the supply of oil and gas and consequently lower fossil fuel prices. Going after pipelines doesn’t keep the oil in the ground, it just puts it on rails.