Esdee of the Tachi nation prays by the Cannon Ball river at Oceti Sakowin Camp on December 3, 2016.
“You certainly can’t build a pipeline for hundreds of miles across the West without running into rivers,” says Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, an organization that advocates for fuel transportation safety. “River crossings can be problematic because rivers move a lot of dirt, and the Army Corps has to plan those crossings well so the pipeline doesn’t get scoured out by the river.”
Long before the Standing Rock dissent, DAPL was proposed to run past Bismarck, North Dakota’s largest city and capital. But the US Army Corp of Engineers squashed the plan in 2014, because the pipe would have been too close to the city’s municipal water supply: Its contents could seep into the groundwater and contaminate taps. So the pipeline’s operator, Energy Transfer Partners, rerouted the pipeline through the less populated Standing Rock reservation—which, obviously, didn’t really solve the problem. The Army Corp’s decision Sunday will be the start of yet another lengthy review for a new route, which will likely delay pipeline completion.
The DAPL’s goal is to connect North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to another, older pipeline in Pakota, Illinois—which goes south to refineries in the Gulf Coast. Now, pipelines are actually the safest way to move vast volumes of oil. Compared to other transportation modes, like trains and trucks, they are also much cheaper. But what’s safest for people isn’t always so for the environment.
During the plotting stages, civil engineers start with a straight line between two points, and then route around trouble spots. Dense, populated regions have strict regulations: Running a pipe through the area would mean high operational fees and higher property costs. Companies will also try to avoid difficult geology, like water crossings.
Oil moves through water systems differently depending on its viscosity—so the type of oil going through the pipeline influences where it’s routed. The light, sweet crude that could leak out of the Dakota Access Pipeline is actually much more hazardous than the heavy tar the Keystone XL pipeline would have shipped. Spilled DAPL lubricant would stay on the surface, moving faster through a water system than the thick, dense tar sands oil. It’s also easier for the DAPL’s oil to leak into the groundwater supply. “Both of the oils will soak up down into the groundwater,” says Weiner. “But the tar sands won’t soak into the groundwater quite as quickly. When it comes out of a pipeline the diluted part evaporates out, and the rest of the oil is so dense it turns into a wax or peanut butter-like paste.” So companies have to be more considerate when designing routes for pipelines carrying light crude.
All of these environmental considerations are enforced by state and federal regulatory agencies. For the most part, pipeline operators deal with each state’s oil pipeline rules: “Some states have a decent process and some have none, in which case, it might fall down to the county level,” says Weimer. And companies will go to great lengths to avoid going across federal lands and large rivers, because that means the US Army Corp of Engineers has to get involved.
In North Dakota, the Public Service Commission assessed all the private land DAPL ran through—which, in this case, was everything except the Missouri River crossing in both Bismarck and Standing Rock. Because it is so large, the Missouri falls under the Army Corps’ jurisdiction, which makes its routing decisions after conducting an environmental assessment plan of potential spill impacts. At the time of publication, the Army Corps had not returned a request for comment about its plans for Standing Rock. But the company, state, and Army Corps will try to avoid cities, rivers, and other environmentally sensitive areas.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is almost complete: It already meanders through four states and 1,170 miles. But Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s owner, can’t ship a drop of oil until the Army Corps clears a new river crossing. Then, the North Dakota Public Service Commission has to once again assess all the parts in between. “We wouldn’t map the rest of it without knowing where they’re going to cross the river,” says Stacy Eberl, the agency’s spokesperson. No matter what route they choose, protestors will probably be standing by: Any pipeline crossing will impact some water supply somewhere.