Dakota Access Pipeline update

The diagram above is another attempt to make sense of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota and other US states. The dispute over the DAPL seems to have been a key factor in the US election result, splitting the Democratic Party, and causing many blue-collar workers to switch to the Trump side. It continues to have a major influence on US politics.

The pipeline is now weeks from completion. The main protest camp has been closed, and cleanup is in progress to prevent tonnes of garbage and human waste from washing into the Missouri River. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe now appears to be concentrating on repairing ties with its neighbours and encouraging conservative elderly North Dakotans to return to its casino (while remaining opposed to the pipeline). Not shown in the diagram are:

  • The complex ties of the Standing Rock Sioux to their neighbours.
  • The complex funding arrangements of the DAPL, which are now the subject of international protest.
  • The complex network of anti-DAPL organisations.
  • The complex law enforcement operations in the area.

Pew Research conducted an interesting survey on attitudes to the DAPL during Feb 7–12 this year. Results are shown below (click to zoom). Overall, people seemed to be roughly evenly divided, with men more likely to favour the pipeline, and women to oppose it. Those under 30 opposed it 2.5 to 1, however, while those aged 65+ supported it 1.8 to 1. Unsurprisingly, those currently leaning Democrat opposed the pipeline 3.5 to 1, while those currently leaning Republican supported it 4.3 to 1.

One minor quibble I had with the survey was that the wording of the question (“Do you favor or oppose building the Dakota Access Pipeline that would transport oil from the shale oil region in North Dakota through the Midwest?”) did not quite reflect the current state of construction. I would expect the level of opposition to be higher for a proposed pipeline (like Keystone XL) than for a completed (or almost-completed) one – although it’s hard to say for sure.


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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.


Oil on troubled waters

Somewhere around 1770, Benjamin Franklin conducted an interesting experiment at Clapham Common in London (photo below by Ewan Munro):

According to Franklin’s Memoirs, “At length being at Clapham, where there is, on the common, a large pond, which I observed to be one day to be very rough with the wind, I fetched out a cruet of oil, and dropt a little of it on the water. I saw it spread itself with surprising swiftness upon the surface; but the effect of smoothing the waves was not produced: for I had applied it first on the leeward side of the pond, where the waves were largest, and the wind drove my oil back upon the shore. I then went to the windward side, where they [the waves] began to form; and there the oil, though not more than a tea-spoonful, produced an instant calm over a space several yards square, which spread amazingly, and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass.

After this, I contrived to take with me, whenever I went into the country, a little oil in the upper hollow joint of my bamboo cane, with which I might repeat the experiment as opportunity should offer, and found it constantly to succeed.

In these experiments, one circumstance struck me with particular surprise. This was the sudden, wide, and forcible spreading of a drop of oil on the face of the water, which I do not know that anybody has hitherto considered. If a drop of oil is put on a polished marble table, or on a looking glass that lies horizontally, the drop remains in place, spreading very little. But when put on water, it spreads instantly many feet round, becoming so thin as to produce the prismatic colors, for a considerable space, and beyond them so much thinner as to be invisible, except in its effect of smoothing the waves at a much greater distance.

A century later, Lord Rayleigh went on to calculate the thickness of such oil layers (which, as they spread, become transparent and monomolecular) as 1.63 nm, which must therefore be (roughly) the length of an oil molecule. See also the blog post here.


Oil on the water (photo: “alicepopkorn”)