Expand the DAPL? Only Illinois Stands in the Way

Environmental advocates are fighting a proposal to double the amount of crude oil flowing through the pipeline.
Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline cuts through farmland in Lee County, Iowa

Keith Turrill/Alamy Stock Photo

Landowner Bill Klingele testified last month in front of the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) about his concerns with a proposal to double the amount of oil pumping through the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). On its way from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota, the pipeline runs by a 385-acre soybean and corn farm that Klingele and his sisters own in Brown County.

“It’s some of the very finest land available anywhere in Illinois and if this were contaminated, yes, [the company] could come in and do their mitigation,” he says. “But you can never put back what thousands and thousands of years have put into the soil.”

DAPL’s owner, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), wants to increase the amount of oil that flows daily through the 30-inch-diameter pipeline from 570,000 barrels of crude to as much as 1.1 million barrels. The infamous conduit, which gained national attention in 2016 when the Standing Rock Sioux stood up against the dangerous placement of the pipeline near their reservation, stretches 1,172 miles across four states.

So far, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa officials have given the proposal their thumbs-up, leaving only one state, Illinois, needed for the final approval. Klingele hopes his testimony, along with that of three environmental groups—Save Our Illinois Land (SOIL), Sierra Club, and NRDC—will be crucial to stopping what they call a threat to the air, water, and land.

A Dakota Access Pipeline valve in a cornfield in Mount Sterling, Illinois

Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune via Newscom

The ICC regulatory process is arguably the most stringent of the four states because the commissioners, appointed by the governor, must decide if a project is both necessary and in the public good before giving it the go-ahead. The discussions took place over three days in early March as protestors gathered outside of the hearing (and even conducted a funeral procession for the planet). Opponents argue that the expansion is unnecessary, citing the likelihood that the oil will be exported at a loss, given the low cost of oil, and not in the public good, because pushing more oil through DAPL would not only exacerbate safety concerns but also increase contributions to climate change.

For its part, ETP argued that the state needs the pipeline because shippers want to ship oil, the Bakken is producing more of it, and global demand is up. The company has been trying to convince Illinoisans of its cause through an advertising blitz, consisting of soothing radio spots speaking of oil jobs and television commercials conveying inspirational messages over the backdrops of scenes of Chicago and refineries downstate. (A company spokesperson says it regularly advertises in areas where it has projects.)

But most of the oil pumped through Illinois isn’t for Illinois. Even though the state ranks fourth in the nation for refining capacity and has more than 7,000 miles of pipeline, ETP has provided no evidence that the oil that goes through DAPL would be used or refined in Illinois, or even in the United States, for that matter.

And as for that global oil demand? Well, a lot has happened since the beginning of March.

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the nation, killing nearly 70,000 Americans in a matter of weeks and forcing the shutdowns of businesses, schools, and most nonessential services. As air and automobile travel plummeted, so did oil demand.

Oil prices were already sinking due to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia in March. The two countries eventually agreed to cut production, but oil continued to flood the market. In mid-April, oil prices cratered into the negatives. When ETP proposed its project last June, the price of oil was $52.51 a barrel. By the first week of May, it was just below $20.

With prices that low and demand nonexistent, the pipeline’s critics say its expansion is even more pointless. In just the last month, the U.S. oil industry slashed production by 900,000 barrels a day. “If there’s no oil to ship or if the producers are closing down the pumps, what are you shipping?” says John Albers, the lawyer representing the environmental groups and Klingele.

Even when oil prices and demand eventually rise, the climate and safety concerns over the DAPL extension still stand, a point underscored in written testimony given to the ICC by renowned climatologist and activist James Hansen, the director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University. As long as there are pipelines to transport more and more oil, the industry will keep taking more of it out of the ground to burn as fuel. A project’s impact on global climate change, however, is not something the ICC has ever considered before, and whether the commissioners take up the issue now remains to be seen.

Pumping more oil through the pipeline would also elevate the local risks of an oil spill. The oil would travel faster and at higher pressure than it does now, so if “one little thing goes wrong, you can exceed the maximum operating pressure in a matter of seconds,” says Albers.

Richard Kuprewicz, an engineer with two decades of experience evaluating pipelines who reviewed the proposal, agrees. Kuprewicz points out that if the pressure surges—which can happen when the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline suddenly changes—and exceeds 110 percent of the maximum operating pressure, the pipeline could rupture. And without proper safety measures in place, the pipe could explode.

“At these high velocities, surge risk becomes very real,” he says. “I’ve been in investigations where surge pressure has killed people.” Kuprewicz is referring to what happened in 1999 in Bellingham, Washington, when a gasoline pipeline, operated by Olympic Pipeline Company, blew up. The fumes knocked an 18-year-old unconscious. The teenager had been fly-fishing in the nearby Whatcom Creek, and he fell into the water and drowned. Two 10-year-old boys, who were playing near the water when the pipe exploded, also died. The disaster serves as a warning for what can happen, says Kuprewicz, and ETP hasn’t provided the information to show that it won’t.

Smoke billowing from Whatcom Creek after a gasoline pipeline exploded in Bellingham, Washington, 1999

Angela Lee Holstrom/Bellingham Herald via Associated Press

Of course, safety concerns surrounding DAPL are not new. A judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in March that the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that granted the pipeline’s permits in 2017, must conduct a full environmental impact statement (EIS) because it didn’t do a good enough job evaluating the risks of a spill the first time around. The ruling was a big win for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which brought the case against the government. Its reservation in South Dakota stands less than a mile from the pipeline, and a spill could contaminate the Missouri River, the tribe’s drinking water source, and destroy hunting and fishing grounds.

The new EIS for DAPL could take years and would likely include an evaluation of the risks posed by a higher volume of oil flowing through the conduit. During that time, the pipeline may even have to shut down. And if the Army Corps’ new assessment shows that a spill could significantly damage the environment, ETP would have to make changes to the pipeline anyway. So it’s possible an ICC decision to approve the expansion now would be premature.

An administrative law judge who hears the arguments and then advises the ICC decided at the end of April that the price of oil and recent court decision in D.C. aren’t relevant to the DAPL proposal. Still, Albers hopes the arguments on climate and safety will resonate with the ICC.

“To just allow the company to come in and say, ‘This is needed’ and ‘This is good’ isn’t sufficient in my mind,” he says. We may soon see if the Illinois commissioners agree.

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