Valid Concerns Over Dakota Access Pipeline

The more I learn the more I realize that the protestors at Standing Rock Reservation have compelling reasons for their stance

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.

  • Badger

    As I understand it, the only alternative to a pipeline is to ship the oil by rail car. What is the safety record for oil shipment by rail? I doubt its better than a pipeline.

  • geraldcuvillier

    Not to worry, we will all survive on wind power and there is plenty of that coming from Washington.

    • Rhett the Butler

      Since Washington IS to the west of us, you are correct.

      More windmills.

  • taxpayer22

    Pipelines: the safer and cheaper way to move oil than Warren Buffet’s RR.

  • Concerned Citizen

    What level of pollution is acceptable? Will it take complete environmental destruction of our earths air, water, farmland, and forests before you change your stance on the use of fossil fuels? What will you eat, breathe, and drink? I believe you are all “greenie” environmentalists at heart, but you won’t admit it yet. I can prove it if you will allow me to. I have an 10′ long, 40″ diameter concrete tube standing vertically, which, has a few flow valves attached to it. Gerald stands in the tube while industrial toxic sludge (the stuff from the oil industry), starts filling in from the bottom, and air pollution (from china) flows into the flow valve on top. The flow slowly rises to Gerald’s ankles, then knees. suddenly he finds his waist is covered with the sludge that is starting to eat his skin. He is getting light headed from inhaling something that causes him to cough. His body temperature is going up, and he feels uncomfortable. To stop the flow, all Gerald has to do is say “Alexa, I am an environmentalist”. The flow would stop immediately, and Gerald could go back to his clean world.
    Unfortunately, the last words heard from Gerald were “glub, glub.
    We live in an extremely finite, and environmentally sensitive world, and we should not continue pollute it!
    Fortunately, there are extremely intellectual people working on solutions that may allow us to stop the damage being done, hopefully before it is too late.
    Also, if you think our transportation industry (all forms) isn’t polluting the air, pull your car into the garage, close the door and start your engine. Take a quick nap and get back to me on the results.
    Wipe your lips Gerald, and thanks for the demonstration.

    • Julian

      “I have an 10′ long, 40″ diameter concrete tube standing vertically, which, has a few flow valves attached to it. Gerald stands in the tube while industrial toxic sludge (the stuff from the oil industry), starts filling in from the bottom, and air pollution (from china) flows into the flow valve on top.”

      How is the above thought experiment an accurate analogy for transporting crude oil in the Dakota Access pipeline? Methinks you’ve gone and overdone it a bit. To wit: if an entire day’s worth of DAPL oil transport (i.e., 570,000 bbls) were to spill and flood the Standing Rock Reservation (which would be impossible), the depth of the spill would be exactly 0.0004 inches. That’s not exactly something anyone would drown in.

    • Darin Hanson

      That is one of the dumbest, most nonsensical things I’ve seen in a long time. This pipeline doesn’t increase the amount of oil anyone is using, it just changes the mode of transportation. So instead of hauling it by greenhouse gas emitters that use petroleum products to move it (trucks and trains), it will go in the most environmentally friendly method which is pipelines. If you think your electronic device you used to post this drivel did not involve petroleum products to produce and transport to you…. well, my guess is you probably do think it made it to you on unicorn magic and fairy dust so I’ll just stop wasting my time.

  • reggiewhitefish

    If all the spills are allowed because it is cheaper than using current technology, the answer may be BIG FINES, to correct the calculation being made based only on cost…… Make it more expensive to not use the safest, state of the art methods and materials.

    • Julian

      What makes you think DAPL doesn’t already employ the very state-of-the-art technologies you’re asking for? It seems that you’ve simply assumed, for ideological reasons, that it doesn’t and just proceeded to criticize. Having read through the engineering sections published in USACE’s environmental assessment of the pipeline (particularly the information on the HDD section that runs under Lake Oahe), I can confidently say this thing looks pretty impressive. It’s also got an impressive price tag attached to it ($3.8 billion), which suggests that this is more than simply some “good ol’ boys” haphazardly throwing a few pipes on the ground and calling it a day.

      To my thinking, the ignorance of the protesters (and the author of this editorial) when it comes to science and engineering is a huge issue at play here. It really does seem like a lot of these protesters fall into one of two categories: either 1) tribal members and older, non-tribal people who haven’t had much formal education; or 2) college-educated Millennials who majored in non-STEM fields, and as a result, don’t know much about math, engineering, or science, more generally. The irony is that the members of this second group are usually the ones who are quickest to accuse their political opponents of being “anti-science”. Next time you hear some snot-nosed 23-year old with a B.A. in theater pontificating about Republicans and climate change, agree with them that climate change is real and then ask them *how we know* it’s real (e.g., what data, what analytical tools, what methodology, etc.). Prepare to hear crickets.

      On your point about stiffening the fines for leaks, that’s seems reasonable enough, but let’s keep in mind that according to the author’s statistic of “one unintentional release per day,” that works out to exactly 0.000135 leaks per mile per year (based on 2.7 million miles of pipeline in the U.S.). Based on that very low rate of failure, stiffening the fines sort of seems like a solution in search of a problem. It’s also important to keep in mind that the “stuff” that leaks from these pipelines is of value to pipeline operators, which means that they already have an incentive for preventing leaks. This is part of the reason why the data show the majority (approx. 70%) of all oil that is spilled in pipeline leaks in the U.S. is recovered during cleanup. The fines aren’t really a motivating factor — fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and clients is.

    • rst1317

      Technology is a not a silver bullet. Humans always make mistakes.

  • Julian

    This is clearly an opinion piece by someone who: A) is ideologically opposed to pipelines (if not fossil fuels, all together); and B) doesn’t know a whole lot about pipelines, so let’s tackle the article’s problems one by one:

    1) “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.”

    There are actually two misleading statements in the author’s opening salvo (copied above). The first misleading statement regards the Corp’s decision on issuing the permit. Technically speaking, the Corps gave Dakota Access the go-ahead to build the pipeline in June, but then reversed its decision in early December in response to the protest (apparently for political reasons). The author seems to be trying to imply that the Corps was *always* opposed to the pipeline, which it wasn’t. The second issue is the author’s rather dishonest way of referring to the geographic location of the pipeline relative to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. He vaguely refers to the pipeline as running “at the northern tip” of the reservation, which could be wrongly interpreted as meaning that the pipeline actually crosses the reservation, which it definitely does not (its closest approach is 0.6 miles north of the reservation). The issue of landownership is very important here, as it’s essentially the only “leg” the tribe has left to stand on after having exhausted all of its other legal complaints against Dakota Access.The land where the pipeline crosses the Missouri River (i.e., at Lake Oahe) was given by the tribe back to the federal government in an 1877 treaty, which is how the Corps came to own it. The legality of that 1877 land transfer was upheld by the Supreme Court in two decisions in 1972 and 1980. Again, the land in question is not owned by the tribe, and as such, they have no legal authority over it.

    2) “It is a single-wall steel pipeline 30 inches in diameter…”

    While the majority of the pipeline’s length is single-walled, the now-controversial section of the pipeline (i.e., the part that crosses under Lake Oahe) is actually double-walled. This is important because, later in the article, the author goes on to extol the virtue of double-walled pipe while simultaneously trying to shame Dakota Access for (he incorrectly assumes) not using it. Given the author’s preoccupation with the crossing at Lake Oahe, his blunder on this point is particularly odd and may suggest, at least to my thinking, either inadequate research or an intentional omission for the purpose of pushing an agenda.

    3) “It will operate at 1,400 psi…”

    Maybe, but probably not. If you read USACE’s environmental assessment of DAPL, they note that the maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) of the pipeline is 1,440 psig. That’s not to say that it *will* operate at that pressure, but merely that the pipeline *could* safely operate up to that pressure if required. Most oil pipelines of this nature operate at considerably lower pressures (i.e., less than 1,000 psig). So, why did the author make this misleading claim? My guess is that his intention is to scare people with the big number (hence his parenthetical comparison with municipal water pressure at 100 psi). The author is, like most people, clearly not an engineer, and as such, he’s intimidated by numbers he doesn’t understand. He apparently hopes readers will be, too. But, to put things into perspective: the section of the pipeline that crosses at Lake Oahe is required to be pressure tested to twice the MAOP (i.e., ~2,880 psig) when it is run under the lake. The pipeline *has* to pass that rigorous pressure testing protocol in order to be put into operation. If it fails, it has to be repaired and retested until it passes.

    4) “Communities near the pipeline will be responsible for first response to any spills.”

    This is also misleading. While it’s true that local emergency response teams (e.g., police, fire, etc.) are likely to be the first on the scene in the unlikely event of a spill (due to their proximity to the pipeline), Dakota Access is required to maintain a facility with spill response equipment near both crossings of the Missouri River (including the one at Lake Oahe). They’re also required to regularly hold emergency response training exercises for both open water and surface ice spills to train personnel on how to contain and clean up a spill. Consequently, people need to understand that Dakota Access does have the equipment and personnel in-place to respond to spills.

    5) “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.”

    This statistic conveniently overlooks the fact that there are currently 2.7 million miles of oil and natural gas pipeline in the United States. Even at the rate of one spill per day, that works out to only one spill per year per 7,400 miles of pipeline, which is an exceedingly low rate of failure. It’s also worth pointing out that the majority of the “unintentional releases” the author refers to actually happen in natural gas pipelines, not oil pipelines. This is particularly relevant given that there’s already a natural gas pipeline that crosses Lake Oahe at the exact same spot as DAPL (i.e., the Northern Border natural gas pipeline, built in 1983). Given the author’s supposed concern about “unintentional releases” in natural gas pipelines, he and other protesters’ silence on the NB pipeline is particularly odd.

    6) The author then goes on to list a number of pipeline spills to further make his case that pipeline spills are common, which again, we know from the statistics, they are not. Another point worth making is that the very same PHMSA data he cites also shows that pipeline failures are statistically clustered in older (pre-1970) pipeline. Modern steel pipe is manufactured according to more stringent federal requirements, including the use of updated anti-corrosion coatings and restrictions on maximum bend radius. Pipelines are also built with tougher guidelines for joining the individual sections of pipe (i.e., by welding, etc.). What the author is trying to do is impugn DAPL by citing failures in much older pipelines. For example, the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill he mentions actually occurred in a section of pipe (Enbridge Line 6b) that was built in 1969. How scientifically accurate do you suppose it is to compare the safety record of something built in 2016 with that of something built almost 50 years ago? Would it be fair to do that with, say, airplanes or automobiles?

    7) “How reliable is [the Computational Pipeline Monitoring] 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.”

    Here, the author is trying, again, to impugn DAPL by manufacturing a controversy about the leak-detection system used in the pipeline. How does he do this? By citing just two examples of failure in CPM, including one that he admits was actually the result of operator error, not an equipment failure. I’d be willing to bet we could find at least two examples of seat belt failures in cars that resulted in fatalities. Would it then be fair to demand the removal of all seat belts from cars, or worse yet, the removal of all automobiles from the road? This is, in essence, what the author and other protesters are calling for, whether they realize it or not. These people simply don’t understand how statistics work.

    8) “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.”

    $3.8 Billion doesn’t strike me as “cheap”. At 1,172 miles long, that works out to $3.24 million per mile, which is more expensive than any other public or private utility that I could find information on (e.g., roads, water lines, electric lines, etc.). The accusation that the company is recklessly cost-cutting is simply not born out by the data.

    9) “If a leak occurred in a pipeline tunneled under Lake Oahe how would the leak be detected and repaired?”

    Just because the author is a dope who doesn’t understand how this works doesn’t mean that the professionals whose job it is to design and monitor these systems also suffer the same ignorance. Perhaps if the author bothered to read USACE’s environmental assessment, or if he reached out to Dakota Access for clarification on some of these technical points, his concerns would be allayed. But let’s not kid ourselves: getting answers to rhetorical questions isn’t the author’s aim in this opinion piece. His aim is to register an opinion — an uninformed and highly ideological one which is only made possible by his scientific illiteracy.

    • Darin Hanson

      Thank you for an educated post. I would like to add a couple more issues with the authors obvious lack of education on the pipeline. First, this pipeline will cross 92 feet below the lake at a minimum and over 100 feet in most areas. Second, the Army Corps of Engineers still recommended approval based on the engineering after re-reviewing to appease protesters but in the end was over ruled by politically appointed bureaucrats who are not even engineers. Third, the author completely fails to account for the current transportation mode of this oil which is trains and trucks. Both have a high number of spills and more importantly, deaths, associated with them. Let’s face it, if pipelines weren’t the best way to transport chemicals and gasses, we’d still be trucking water and natural gas to our homes….

    • rst1317

      Do not forget that Standing Rock is not opposed to pipelines. Their leadership has explicitly gone on record saying they’re willing to negotiate on this and future infrastructure projects.

  • geraldcuvillier

    Oh Mr. Concerned Citizen, I am already choking. But it is laughter that I am choking on. Stop! Please! I think I am an environmentalist already!

  • rst1317

    Mr. Davis, can you or anyone else explain how a pipeline that will be 100 feet underneath the lake bed defy gravity and the pressure of 100 feet of soil and rock on top of it to leak into the water?

    Mr. Davis, can you or anyone else explain to us how one of the worst pipeline spills, if not the worst, in US history, on a Kalamazoo River tributary has resulted in zero long term damage, has been cleaned up, and didn’t cut off drinking water too anyone?

    The problem we too often make is leaving out calendar time. The question is for how long is a spill an environmental problem. The question is for how long and how large of one it is. Are they a problem? Yes. Are they worth denying poor people – those most affected by rising prices – and others lack to clean drinking water ( energy is essential for a clean human environment including cleaning and moving safe drinking water ), et al.

    Just because a few acorns may fall on our heads doesn’t mean we should kill the tree.