The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy

A recent letter to Science by Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley and three PhD students expresses strong opposition to the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The letter cites (an old version of) the Environmental Assessment for the DAPL, though not the 1261-page Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) report on the project. The authors of the letter assert that “To date the potential impacts of DAPL construction, or any potential spills, on aquatic or terrestrial species has not been adequately assessed,” but unfortunately do not indicate which sections of the existing Environmental Assessment dealing with those subjects they consider to be inadequate.


A pallid sturgeon (Scaphirynchus albus) being released into the Yellowstone River by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel.

The long version of the letter also implies that the endangered pallid sturgeon (above) would be adversely affected by the proposed DAPL crossing of the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. However, as the ACE report notes, pallid sturgeon are in fact very scarce in Lake Oahe. This is because, ever since that lake was formed by the 1958 Oahe Dam, the waters have been unsuitable for reproduction of that species. The remaining pallid sturgeon are primarily found elsewhere. The ACE believes that the pallid sturgeon is unlikely to be adversely affected by the DAPL.

It is true that older oil pipelines can and do rupture with disturbing frequency. For example, the Poplar Pipeline in Montana, built in the 1950s using faulty welding techniques and laid in a very shallow trench under the Yellowstone River, spilled a substantial amount of oil in 2015. However, even that spill does not seem to have harmed the fish there (in contrast to the quite serious negative effects on fish typically seen for marine or wetland oil spills).


Map from the Army Corps of Engineers report, showing DAPL crossing point at Lake Oahe.

The authors of the letter also state that cultural impact assessments of the DAPL have been inadequate (although the court thus far disagrees, noting cultural surveys conducted by licensed archaeologists, and a consultation process that began in 2014). The proposed river crossing runs just north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation (see map above). The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe claims that DAPL construction has destroyed cairns and sacred burial grounds near the crossing, although North Dakota’s chief archaeologist says that no burial sites or significant sites were destroyed (and it is a little difficult to see how DAPL construction in the disputed area could have damaged any significant sites, since the DAPL there closely follows the path of the 1982 Northern Border Pipeline, as indicated by a visible line on satellite imagery and by black and yellow “Caution: Gas Pipeline” signs visible in photographs taken at protest sites – i.e. the relevant land was already bulldozed and restored 34 years ago).

Early in the planning stage, a DAPL route further north was apparently considered. This would have not have been collocated with existing pipeline to the same extent, would have been 10.6 miles longer, would have crossed more agricultural land, wetlands, and floodplain, and would have cost the company behind the DAPL $22.6 million more. Still, the company may now be wishing that they had followed up that option.


DAPL construction, elsewhere along the route (photo: Tony Webster).

The whole topic is of course a political hot potato, being a major source of conflict between, on the one hand, mainstream US Democrats (including construction-worker unions and the Clinton campaign), and, on the other hand, followers of Bernie Sanders and the Greens. Further complicating matters is that some land in the Dakotas was assigned to the Sioux by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and unjustly taken from them (over 1 billion dollars has been provided in compensation, following litigation by the tribe, but the tribe has nevertheless refused the money, wanting the land instead). At the same time, increasing tensions in the Dakotas are likely to damage the tribe’s casino business over the longer term.


Traffic churning out greenhouse gases.

Protests against the DAPL have also been linked to climate change, but the project in fact makes little or no difference to US fossil-fuel consumption. Oil can also be shipped within the US by rail (although this is less safe) and by ship from overseas oilfields. I think that activists would do better to campaign for e.g. public transport to replace inefficient individual automobiles, which produce copious greenhouse gases (solar cars would make a good alternative as well!). I must admit that I also struggle to understand activists who drive convoys of gasoline-powered vehicles to anti-fossil-fuel protests.


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2 thoughts on “The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy

  1. Pingback: Dakota Pipeline news | Scientific Gems

  2. Pingback: Dakota Access Pipeline update | Scientific Gems

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