When Will Pipeline Protests Lead to Better Pipeline Laws?

On September 29, nineteen members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama

In support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (the “Tribe”) who have been protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which is supposed to transport oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to Illinois.

The letter from Congress comes a few days after President Obama spoke at the White House Tribal Nations Conference and told the Tribe and the hundreds of other Indian Nations who are protesting the DAPL with them, that they were “making their voices heard.” In addition to Native American groups and other individuals that have joined the protest, the pipeline is also being opposed by environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

If this all seems vaguely familiar, it’s probably because many of the big environmental problems cited by those who oppose the DAPL are similar to the issues protesters had with the Keystone XL pipeline, which was ultimately stopped last year. The Tribe’s legal objections to the DAPL touch on some general environmental concerns but have mainly focused on a few specific issues. The DAPL would come within less than a mile of their reservation, it would cross their ancestral land and potentially disrupt burial sites, and it would cross several bodies of water, including the Missouri River, which supply the Tribe’s drinking water.

After the Army Corps of Engineers granted final permits for the pipeline in July, the Tribe filed a lawsuit against them. The suit says that, because the DAPL could affect the Tribe’s water and their ancestral lands, the Tribe should have been consulted before the Army Corps of Engineers granted fast track approval to the pipeline’s owners, Energy Transfer Partners. In September, a Federal judge temporarily stopped construction on the DAPL. On October 9th the court ruled that construction could resume on part of the pipeline but it is still halted on another area and a final ruling from an appeals court is expected sometime this month. If the court rules in favor of the Tribe and against the Army Corps of Engineers, the DAPL may be delayed, moved to a new route, or possibly stopped altogether.

The letter from members of Congress to the president urges the administration to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to “initiate a transparent permitting process that includes public notice and participation, formal tribal consultation, and adequate environmental review of the pipeline.” The Army Corps of Engineers should absolutely do these things, not just for the benefit of the Tribe, but for all the other people this pipeline will affect. For instance, another lawsuit is being filed by farmers in Iowa whose land was seized under eminent domain and whose crops are being bulldozed to make way for the pipeline. Furthermore, public notice, consultation, and environmental review should be a mandatory part of any large-scale project that can have a national impact on our energy and our environmental future.

But, regardless of what happens with the DAPL, Congress has some work to do on the pipeline issue, beyond just writing a letter. One of the main concerns of the Tribe has been that the DAPL threatens their water supply and this concern is scarily justified. Earlier this year, a pipeline in Peru spilled thousands of gallons of oil into two separate Amazonian rivers, which provided the drinking water for several communities in area. Here in the U.S., the Yellowstone River has been fouled twice in the last 5 years by oil pipelines.

The most recent Yellowstone river spill was in January 2015, when tens of thousands of gallons were dumped into the river by a pipeline in Montana. The pipeline that broke had been inspected after the previous break and it was found to be only eight feet under the riverbed. That depth is four feet deeper than the legal minimum required, but obviously not deep enough to be safe, because, after the 2015 spill, it was found that the river bed had changed and over 100ft of the pipeline was completely unburied and exposed to river water, rocks, and debris.

Any one of these instances, in particular the 2015 spill, should have inspired Congress to pass legislation requiring stricter safety measures for pipelines, especially where they come near water, but only a handful of bills on this subjectwere introduced and none of them moved very far and none of them specifically addressed minimum pipeline depth under water. So, while it’s admirable that a few of our elected officials are encouraging more responsible oversight for the DAPL in particular, that doesn’t address the fact that all of our lawmakers have repeatedly failed to enact meaningful legislation to make pipelines safer for all of us. If we’re going to continue to rely on oil to meet a big part of our energy needs in this country, then we are going to continue to use pipelines to move it and we need to stop addressing the problems one pipeline, and one protest, at a time.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.