Protestors of the Dakota Access pipeline were cheering the move made by the Army Corps of Engineers on Sunday to deny the necessary permit to complete the mostly-built project. The pipeline is meant to connect North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields with refineries in Illinois, but its final segment—a part that travels underneath the Missouri river—has come under intense national security after protestors have descended on the site, citing concerns over environmental degradation and infringement on the nearby Standing Rock reservation.
Now, the Army’s about-face on granting the pipeline its necessary easement is consigning the project to regulatory limbo—a location familiar to the Obama administration, which kept the Keystone XL pipeline in this purgatory for over six years before finally killing it a little over one year ago—as its builder will now have to conduct environmental impact reviews of alternative routes. That process will take years, and place its fate in the hands of the Trump administration (which we can reasonably expect to be more pro-pipeline than Obama’s).
We should note that the fight over this particular pipeline differs from that over the Keystone XL project in an important way: the Dakota Access pipeline has raised questions over incursions on locations sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux. That battle is currently being waged in the DC district court. That said, many of the environmentalists that grew accustomed to opposing the Keystone pipeline during the five years that that battle was the American green movement’s marquee issue have been drawn—like moths to a flaring shale rig, if you will—to this Dakota fracas.
What they hope to accomplish is equally unclear.
Just as the Keystone XL pipeline hasn’t actually done anything to stop or slow oil production in Canada’s oil sands (in fact, that output is expected to increase 42 percent by 2025), the Obama administration’s rejection of the Dakota Access pipeline won’t keep the crude in the ground in North Dakota’s prolific Bakken shale formation. Instead, as Reuters reports, we’re going to see more of that oil riding our nation’s railways in the coming years than we might have hoped:
Sunday’s decision…means shippers who expected to see another 570,000 barrels of daily Bakken pipeline capacity in 2017 will have to find new ways to move supply.
Rail comprises nearly 65 percent of total crude export capacity in the Bakken, but is currently underutilized because it is more costly and less efficient. In September, only 29 percent of total Bakken oil production moved by rail, according to the latest figures from the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.
“Once the pipes are full, that means more trains. And without DAPL, the pipes get full sooner than they otherwise would have,” said Rick Smead, managing director of advisory services for RBN Energy, noting that this scenario is contingent on a big rise in production.
That’s a problem, because as we’ve seen time and again, moving vast quantities of crude by rail can lead to some horrific accidents. In short, stopping pipeline construction won’t stop the shale boom, but it will threaten public safety.
The shale revolution came out of nowhere, and in a short eight years it has completely remade the American energy landscape. But that rapid speed at which it has manifested itself has also given the country little time to build out the necessary accompanying pipeline infrastructure to efficiently direct this flood of crude from far flung shale fields to refineries and, eventually, to consumers. The Dakota Access pipeline was one part of an effort to try and address this issue, and though its defeat over the weekend will be read many different ways by many different people, it was not a victory for environmentalists.