Dakota Pipeline news

It seems that the US Army Corps of Engineers will green-light the last few miles of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. This is in line with their earlier 1261-page environmental assessment. In response to numerous protests, the Obama administration had overridden the conclusions of that report, and the Trump administration has, as expected, reversed the reversal. It is not clear when construction will begin. Cleanup of garbage from the protest sites is ongoing, in order to avoid environmental problems when the snow melts.

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

Update: CNN reports that the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) has now issued the final permit. Construction has resumed. Opposition to the pipeline has refocussed on the claim that “The Lakota people believe that the pipeline correlates with a terrible Black Snake prophesied to come into the Lakota homeland and cause destruction. The Lakota believe that the very existence of the Black Snake under their sacred waters in Lake Oahe will unbalance and desecrate the water and render it impossible for the Lakota to use that water in their Inipi ceremony.” This new claim, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was not addressed in the earlier ACE environmental assessment. However, it is unclear how the potential for spiritual desecration could be assessed (and why the eight existing pipelines under Lake Oahe have not already caused such desecration). The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has saidPlease respect our people and do not come to Standing Rock and instead exercise your First Amendment rights and take this fight to your respective state capitols, to your members of Congress, and to Washington, DC.

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.

Infrastructure in the USA

I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse
I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse (2007)

The American Society of Civil Engineers has prepared a report card on the USA’s infrastructure. It’s a sobering read. They give the nation an overall rating of D+, noting that, for example, 70,000 bridges are in need of repair, and US$3.6 trillion needs to be spent by 2020. The image above, of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge which collapsed in 2007, illustrates the problem. Another bridge collapsed in Washington state in 2013.

Overall Score D+
Energy D+
Schools D
Public Parks & Recreation C−
Transit D
Roads D
Rail C+
Ports C
Inland Waterways D−
Bridges C+
Aviation D
Wastewater D
Solid Waste B−
Levees D−
Hazardous Waste D
Drinking Water D
Dams D

Scores vary from state to state. Texas gets an overall C (mediocre), for example, and Colorado a C+, while Michigan gets only a D (poor). The Flint water crisis is one of the more notable infrastructure problems in that state.

Addressing these infrastructure problems, although expensive, would certainly restore some of the jobs that the USA has lost over the last few years, and would make the USA more globally competitive. The places with the best infrastructure are Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain.

Damaged highway in Vermont
Damaged highway in Vermont (2008)