Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline--Part 3. The Pipeline Project

Click for photo credit.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter: The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

Part 3. The Pipeline Project

As was evident in the last post in this series, North Dakota is going through an energy boom. It is producing huge amounts of oil and natural gas. Although the population is growing, the vast majority of this energy is exported to energy poor areas of the U.S. for use or further export. This post will review the use of pipelines in the U.S., summarize some basic pipeline technology, describe the Dakota Access Pipeline project, and close with its current status.

Pipelines are used to transport a variety of liquids and gases all over the United States. Most of us are familiar with sewer and water pipelines that are part of urban infrastructure. Water pipes bring us clean treated drinking water to our homes and businesses from central water treatment plants and sewage pipes remove wastewater from our homes to a central sewage treatment plant for processing. These pipelines serve our urban metabolic needs and help to keep us safe from public health problems that emerge when large groups of people live together in dense clusters.

Besides these pipelines, in some places there are also natural gas pipelines that transport energy to our homes for household uses such as heating, clothes drying, and cooking. While these pipelines are usually safe, moving natural gas around can cause explosions such as the one that occurred in the Lower East Side of New York in 2015 when 2 people were killed and 19 injured.

While we may all be familiar with the pipelines in urban settings, we are probably less familiar with pipelines used for industrial purposes. They are all around us.
Natural as pipelines in the U.S. Click for image credit.
Crude oil pipelines in the U.S. Click for image credit.
The map to the right shows the distribution of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. It is clear where the major sources of energy are located based on the concentration of pipelines in places like Texas and Louisiana. The pipeline network is more extensive than the network of crude oil pipelines shown below the natural gas pipeline. There are also a variety of other pipelines that carry different liquids or gases limited distances. For example, in the photo below, an ammonium pipeline is shown that carries ammonium from the Port of Tampa to the phosphate mining areas miles away. While in the case of Ammonium we do not see the same coverage of pipelines as we do with natural gas and crude oil, these types of pipelines have had some significant problems. For example, in 2007, a teenage in Tampa drilled into the ammonium pipeline near Riverview, Florida. It caused a significant leak that led to the evacuation of hundreds of people. The teenager was also severely burned.

The first pipelines for oil started in the late 19th century but expanded greatly in the first two decades of the 20th century. The first pipelines were relatively simple and not that different from water or sewage pipelines. They were single lined pipes that transported oil by gravity and pressure. Today, the pipeline technology is very different. Newer systems are built to avoid corrosion, they have lead detection systems, and they have a much higher capacity. In addition, pipeline drilling technology allows pipelines to be located deep underground. Regardless, accidents do occur.
An ammonia pipeline near Tampa. Photo courtesy of
Aimee van Allen.
One of the more recent spills (as of this writing) occurred in Cushing, Oklahoma. Any simple Internet search will show that crude oil spills from pipelines happen somewhat regularly. Some of the leaks are small and are contained, yet others are more problematic like this example from Bay Long, Louisiana from September of this year. While the oil and pipeline industry assures the public that pipelines are safe, there is no doubt that accidents do occur with some regularity. It is impossible to build a totally safe pipeline. The problem with petroleum spills is that they are very difficult to clean up.

Check out the video below from CNN showing the difficulties of cleaning up an oil spill in suburban Arkansas back in 2013.

The Dakota Access Pipeline as proposed (and partially built) is over 1100 miles long and extends from near Williston North Dakota in the heart of the shale fracking fields to Patoka, Illinois. Since it was first unveiled, numerous permits were applied for and received for building the pipeline. Construction is nearly complete in North Dakota. However, one stretch, the crossing of the Missouri River, is contentious because of its vicinity to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. There are many legal and ethical issues surround this crossing that will be discussed in upcoming posts. For now, however, it is important to note that as of this writing, the construction of the crossing is halted.
The Dakota Access Pipeline project. Note the Standing Rock Reservation is
shown in orange and crosses both North and South Dakota. Click for photo credit.

If it is completed, the pipeline has the capacity to transport 450,000 barrels of crude oil a day in its 30 inch diameter pipe. The company behind the pipeline is Dakota Access LLC which is owned by Energy Transfer Partners. This group is partially owned by Phillips 66 which owns another pipeline that connects the Illinois terminus of the Dakota Access Pipeline to refineries in Texas. Marathon Petroleum also has an ownership stake in the pipeline project. In many ways, this pipeline is part of a globalized network of energy transportation systems developed by U.S. and multinational industries.

To build the project, the company involved had to get easements either voluntary or involuntary via eminent domain rules. As is the case with many projects like this, most of the access was granted voluntarily in exchange for financial considerations. However, not all land was granted voluntarily and the pipeline remains a contentious issue in all of the states it crosses. However, the most contentious site remains the site where it crosses the Missouri River in North Dakota near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Here, months of protests have generated a national conversation about the pipeline, environmental justice, and the status of tribal lands.

The next post in this series will take a deep look at the heart of the matter, the Missouri River.


1. Where are located in your state? What do they carry?

2. Check your local newspapers and do a search for pipeline accident. Describe your results. Did you find any local examples?

3. Each person in the United States uses on average about 2.5 gallons of crude oil per day. How much crude oil is used in your city, county, or state based on population? If the Dakota Access Pipeline can move 450,000 barrels a day, and each barrel is 42 gallons, what percentage of the Dakota Access Pipeline would your city, county, or state use each day?

4. If you owned property needed to build an oil pipeline, would you willingly give up your property rights to provide access for it? Why or why not?

5. The Dakota Access Pipeline is often seen as a local economic development project. However, it is also part of a globalized energy system. What do you see as the local pros and cons within this context?

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