Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented Americans with an entirely new set of rules (mask requirements and social distancing) and penalties should they be broken (removal from airline flights). We are, of course, taught from an early age that following the rules is the right thing to do and that breaking those rules—in school, at home or the playing field — has consequences
Whether you are an adult or a child, it is always frustrating to witness someone flout the rules yet emerge unscathed, but it is equally frustrating to see the rules followed and the party inexplicably still punished. The latter is the position the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and its developer are finding themselves in nearly four years of safe operation.
The legal wheels on DAPL began turning about five years ago when several Native American tribes in North Dakota — namely, the Standing Rock Sioux — expressed their opposition to the pipeline’s construction and filed a lawsuit to halt its construction. Interestingly, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe refused to participate in the extensive consultation process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before DAPL’s construction began – a process that would’ve allowed them the opportunity to submit formal comments, feedback, and concerns regarding the pipeline and its selected route.
Of course, DAPL was built and has been operating since June of 2017, transporting Bakken crude to an energy hub in southern Illinois. But over the past several years, the tribes’ legal challenge has bounced around the federal courts. The court last year ordered the Corps to complete additional environmental review on the project, which is expected to be completed by March of 2022.
But even this wasn’t enough, and the tribes have demanded the Biden administration shutter DAPL until the review is complete (or if opponents had their way, permanently), which lawyers for the Army Corps announced this week was not necessary, further advocating for the pipeline’s continued safe operation. The administration should not waver from that position. Now, all eyes are on U.S. District Judge James Boasberg to see if he will again order the pipeline be emptied of crude oil until the additional review is complete.
DAPL is already the most studied, regulated and litigated pipeline in American history. The pipeline’s developers have taken significant measures beyond industry standards to mitigate any potential risk, and both the Army Corps and respective state regulators conducted rigorous review processes before ultimately approving the project. The Corps’ original 1,261 page environmental assessment (EA) issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact” or “FONSI.”
Then, three years ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded a year-long additional study of DAPL that substantiated its earlier finding that the pipeline presented no significant impact or environmental risk. In addition, over 1,000 certificates, permits and approvals were granted for DAPL on top of hundreds of meetings with regulators, tribal leaders, local officials, and community members. Its developers went through all the regulatory hoops, crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’, yet are still being told that isn’t enough.
Often lost in all the legal back-and-forth is the fact that DAPL has been operating safely for four years, transporting roughly 570,000 barrels of oil per day. In fact, pipelines have long proven to be the most efficient, safest, and environmentally conscious means to transport the energy resources Americans rely on every day. In the case of DAPL, that means fewer tanker trucks on the road and less freight trains travelling through the Standing Rock Reservation and other residential areas, resulting in fewer accidents and lower carbon emissions — a goal, ironically, of many activists opposing DAPL.
Pulling the rug out from under the pipeline now sets a dangerous precedent for future infrastructure projects as companies will be leery of investing time and billions of dollars’ worth of resources. Projects like DAPL are time-consuming and expensive. A paper released by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy found that the average real cost of a pipeline per inch mile increased an astounding 400 percent over the last 20 years.
The authors highlighted a contributing cause of the increase, writing, “For a 30-inch diameter transmission line, the inflation adjusted cost per mile was $1.97 million in 2000 and $7.5 million in 2019, as a result of increased legal challenges to federal permits by environmental groups and state level permitting delays.”
DAPL’s developers followed the rules on this $4 billion project which is safely delivering a much-needed energy source to Americans, but for the pipeline’s opponents, it is simply not enough — and that should frustrate us all.
• Craig Stevens, a former senior adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman, is the spokesman for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now (GAIN).