One of the Obama administration’s core competencies is suspending pipeline projects with no cause.
It will leave office with another notch in its belt, now that the Army Corps of Engineers has acted to block a final piece of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The 1,200-mile pipeline is designed to move oil from North Dakota to Illinois and will have to await completion in a Trump administration with a more rational attitude toward pipelines specifically and fossil fuels generally.
The story of the Dakota Access Pipeline will be familiar to anyone who followed the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline. As with Keystone, the builders of the pipeline have taken years to dutifully check every environmental and bureaucratic box, only to get stymied when protesters — this time a Native American tribe — made the project a hate totem for the left.
With Keystone, the narrative was that the pipeline would doom the planet by bringing to market oil from the tar sands of Canada. With Dakota Access, the narrative is that Native Americans are once again getting railroaded by greedy interests who don’t care about their history or their welfare. After the decision by the Army Corps, one demonstrator told the press that the victory was “due to our people for the hundreds of years of genocide and oppression,” which is putting a lot of weight on what should be a routine bureaucratic decision to approve an otherwise unremarkable pipeline.
The protests have been led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota. The tribe alleges that the Dakota Access project will trample on culturally sensitive sites and taint its drinking water, without much in the way of supporting evidence.
The dispute centers around the pipeline’s planned crossing of the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. This isn’t exactly virgin territory. Around the lake, the pipeline will run within 22 to 300 feet of the existing Northern Border Gas Pipeline, which has been in service since 1982 and hasn’t devastated the Standing Rock tribe. The pipeline also tracks with an overhead utility line.
A decision by a federal judge in September to reject a bid by the Standing Rock tribe to block the pipeline cataloged how deliberate the developers of Dakota Access have been about culturally sensitive sites.
According to the opinion, the company found 149 potentially sensitive sites in its own surveying in North Dakota. It modified the route to avoid 140 of them and came up with a plan with the state of North Dakota to limit any effect on the other nine. It will run the pipeline with horizontal drilling in sensitive areas, allowing its installation without a trench and with minimal disruption.
Throughout most of this process, representatives of the Standing Rock tribe notably did all they could to make themselves unavailable and unresponsive. When the Army Corps invited them to a general meeting to discuss the pipeline in November 2015, five tribes attended, but not Standing Rock.
In the spring of 2016, the Corps coordinated with the pipeline’s developers to allow tribes to conduct their own cultural surveys at locations around the route. Three tribes participated; Standing Rock did not. The tribal surveys identified additional sites of concern, where Dakota Access duly agreed to take additional protective measures.
There is no real defense, though, against protesters staging cable-TV-ready disturbances against a project and making it a cause celebre. For the overwhelming majority of its route, the Dakota Access pipeline requires no permitting, since it traverses private land. It’s the tiny percent that would affect waterways that made it subject to federal approval, and thus to political hostage-taking.
For the left, Dakota Access is a symbol. In reality, it is simply a means of moving half a million barrels of crude oil a day from Point A to Point B, an activity that shouldn’t be considered dastardly or untoward. Fortunately for Dakota Access, and everyone else in the energy industry, help is on the way.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.