For protesters at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline, everywhere is downstream. A historic gathering of Native Americans from sixty tribes, including Sioux who haven’t come together since the time of Greasy Grass (Battle of Little Bighorn), has converged near Cannonball, North Dakota where Dakota Access, LLC, is set to build a pipeline to carry shale oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields down to Illinois, where it will be sent even further, to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico. In the process, it will cross 1,172 miles (from the Bakken fields to Patoka, Illinois), passing near Native American land, across Iowa ranches, and pass under the Missouri river twice. For a sense of scale, this pipeline would be only seven miles shorter than the famous KXL pipeline.
Several stakeholders are against building the pipeline. The project’s path passes less than a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, where the residents rely on the Missouri river for all of their water. The tribe has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approving the pipeline, which they fear will leak or burst and foul the Missouri river, along with all of the water downstream. And as you can see from the map of the Missouri rivershed below, there’s a lot of “downstream.”
Protests against the pipeline have been ongoing since April. Peaceful protesters near Cannonball have been denied water and emptying of their portable toilets, and many have been arrested. Access to the camp has been blocked by police, and anyone that they suspect has traveled to join the protesters is sent away. Still, over a thousand people have gathered to pray, sing, drum, and raise their collective voices against what they believe is a disaster waiting to happen. Even an incomplete list of pipeline accidents since the year 2000 shows that it’s not if the pipeline will leak, but when.
And for what? The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) claims that proven reserves in the Bakken are 5,972 million barrels of tight oil and natural gas products, which would be accessed through technologically challenging methods like fracking and horizontal drilling. This is the largest known proven reserve of petroleum in the United States, but in 2015, the U.S. consumed an average of 19.4 million barrels per day. At that rate, the entirety of the oil in this North Dakota deposit could satisfy U.S. demand for just shy of 308 days, assuming it isn’t just sold on the international market. Ten months of oil, for a pretty much guaranteed risk of environmental disaster. Enbridge, a stakeholder in the Dakota Access pipeline, was responsible for the largest inland oil spill in American history, sending 1.2 million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo river in Michigan. If the leaks and accidents don’t defile the land and water, eventually spewing that much carbon into our atmospheric sewer will only worsen our climate predicament.
We must also consider the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) for Bakken shale, which is reportedly 6. This means that it takes the energy from one barrel of oil in order to extract 6 barrels of oil from Bakken oil shale. This is a pretty low return, especially compared to the energy needed to get at the easier oil we drilled between 1919 and 1972, when the return was 20 barrels of oil for each barrel used to fuel the extraction process. The increasing energy cost for each barrel returned is a sign that we’re scraping the bottom of the (ahem) barrel here. Like an addict looking through the couch cushions for change to buy our next fix, it would probably be better if we started looking at ways to get into recovery instead.
The Native Americans aren’t the only people protesting against the Dakota Access pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access, has asked that the power of eminent domain be used to commandeer land from unwilling Iowa landowners so it can be provided to the for-profit firm. A board appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad has approved of the transfer, despite Republicans typically saying that they value property rights as a matter of course. Pending lawsuits from the affected landowners may be heard in the Iowa Supreme Court.
As of this writing, there has been a temporary reprieve in the construction of the pipeline as various legal issues and logistical problems sort themselves out, such as Dakota Access not yet being able to obtain a written easement to cross the Missouri river.
The pipeline is expected to be complete by January 1, 2017. It will reportedly provide 12 to 15 permanent jobs once it is finished.
(Video courtesy of Newsy.)