The Corps of Engineers recently decided against issuing the final permit to allow completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Missouri River at Lake Oahe at the northern tip of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. This, after extensive protests by thousands of people at Cannonball, North Dakota. Did these protesters have a valid concern about contamination of their water supply and lands?
First some information about the pipeline: The Dakota Access Pipeline is designed to deliver oil from near Williston, North Dakota, to a pipeline hub near Salem, Illinois. It is a single-wall steel pipeline 30 inches in diameter, 1,172 miles long and will be buried between 2 feet and 4 feet in depth depending on ground conditions. It will operate at 1,400 psi (city water mains operate at approximately 100 psi) and will transport approximately 500,000 barrels per day – approximately 18,000 gallons per minute – of Bakken oil to the existing pipeline network in southern Illinois. It will cross the Missouri River twice as well as several major tributaries to the Missouri such as the Heart, Knife, Spring, and Little Missouri Rivers. The pipeline constructor and owner is Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company, LLC, which operates 71,000 miles of pipeline in the US. Pipeline operation will be monitored and controlled from Sugerland, Texas. Leak detection will be via the “Computational Pipeline Monitoring” method. Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company has four response teams in the U.S. for its 71,000 miles of pipeline. Communities near the pipeline will be responsible for first response to any spills.
How likely is a petroleum pipeline to leak? A 2012 study commissioned by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) reported that there were 1,337 “unintentional releases” in the U.S. between 2010 and 2012 – more than one a day. For another pipeline company, True Cos, there have been 36 “spills” from their pipeline systems in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming since 2006 with an estimated total loss of 320,000 gallons. There have been four well-publicized spills in the general region of the Standing Rock protest, including the January 2015 pipeline rupture under the Yellowstone River upstream of Glendive, the September 2013 pipeline break near Tioga, North Dakota, the July 2014 hazardous liquids pipeline rupture on the Berthold Indian Reservation, North Dakota, and the December, 2016 pipeline break near Belfield, North Dakota. Total estimated spill volume: 2,073,000 gallons of petroleum and hazardous waste.
How quickly and reliably could a leak be detected? Leak detection for the Dakota Access Pipeline is via the Computational Pipeline Monitoring (CPM) method, which uses algorithmic modeling of the moment-by-moment state of the pipeline to help detect anomalies in the system. How reliable is this system? At the Tioga pipeline failure a dime-sized hole developed in a 6-inch crude oil pipeline. This leak was undetected for 11 days and was ultimately noticed by a wheat farmer. It discharged 865,000 gallons of crude oil. In July, 2010 the 30-inch Enbridge Canadian tar sands oil pipeline developed a leak, which eventually totaled 843,000 gallons and fouled 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The CPM system in the Enbridge system had indicated alarms three times but the operators dismissed them. The reason? The tendency for the system to provide false alarms. In fact, the prevalence of false alarms is pervasive throughout U.S. pipeline leak detection systems. There are other more effective systems such as hydrocarbon sensors, thermal imaging, etc. but the pipeline system owners have not embraced them because of cost. In other words the costs they would incur for more robust pipeline construction and leak detection are greater than those incurred from a spill.
So, if I lived on the Standing Rock Reservation (or anywhere in the vicinity of a petroleum pipeline) would I have valid concerns? I think yes. The industry has options to improve pipeline safety and reliability such as double-wall pipes, improved leak detection, etc. but appears to be building their systems on the cheap. This in spite of the fact that the petroleum industry has the highest profitability of any U.S. industry in terms of dollar value. The U.S. suffers an average of one significant pipeline failure a day. If a leak occurred in a pipeline tunneled under Lake Oahe how would the leak be detected and repaired? The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the petroleum industry an infrastructure grade of D+ in 2013 primarily because of deficiencies in pipeline condition and controls systems – such as those which monitor for leaks. The actual operator of the Dakota Access Pipeline is in flux with Sunoco possibly assuming that role. Enbridge has an interest in the pipeline. Does this mean that the pipeline may carry Alberta Tar Sands oil in the future? If that is the case, talk to the residents along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan about the hazards from that oil type. Approximately 9 million gallons of natural gas and petroleum were lost due to pipeline leaks in the U.S. between 2010 and 2016. The more I learn the more I realize that the protestors at Standing Rock Reservation have compelling and valid reasons for their stance.