Pipeline politics explained

That contentious oil pipeline being built across the Standing Rock reservation’s water supply has a revealing history. It wasn’t originally supposed to go there!

As Bill McKibben explains for the New Yorker, the pipeline was originally supposed to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, but it was moved over concerns that an oil spill at that location would have wrecked the state capital’s drinking water. As a result, the pipeline was shifted to a crossing half a mile from the reservation.

All the white folks in Bismarck didn’t need to camp out and get shot at and blown up and frozen in order to express their disapproval — a few words of “concern” and oil executives decided to pick a less important population to poison.

But don’t worry. I now have a solution to the whole problem.

As relayed in a memo to employees, the company insists that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the local water supply are unfounded.”

Excellent! So just pack up and move the thing to the original, planned location, which isn’t full of uppity, fractious natives who are willing to fight for their land.

I’m glad that was so easily solved. I’m sure the residents of Bismarck will find that memo totally reassuring.


  1. methuseus says

    Excellent! So just pack up and move the thing to the original, planned location, which isn’t full of uppity, fractious natives who are willing to fight for their land.

    That sounds like the ideal solution to me. Or else just not build it. If it’s not built the oil becomes a lot more expensive to ship and less profitable.

  2. says

  3. Nullifidian says

    Okay, the essay really is about American exceptionalism being a false interpretation of history & culture.

  4. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Why isn’t the company being required to use double-wall construction for the pipeline? That should be minimum requirements for transporting anything consider toxic by pipeline.

  5. qwints says

    Rich and/or white NIMYBism is an insidious source of oppression in the US. It’s often invisible and leads to a ton of environmental, housing and educational impacts.

  6. anbheal says

    Well, if they re-route it by Bismarck, Standing Rock would still be an ideal spot to store nuclear waste. I mean, since there aren’t any Navajo or Anasazi reservations handy up there.

  7. unclefrogy says

    pipe lines are all pretty safe when they are still under 20 years old and are owned by the original owner/operator and need little maintenance but after a time they are sold on to other operators who have often not preformed the proper inspection and maintenance nor the diligent operation and they have a blowout some where along the line after numerous leaks occurred first. By that time the contractor is long gone as is the original owner having skimmed off the easy money and sold on the expense.
    Of course pipelines are cheaper in the short term but are they really that much cheaper in the long term if they are maintained to the higher standards that would make the kind of accidents that put the environment at risk as negligible as is claimed when they are being sold? They sure squeal when they are asked to increase inspection and maintenance or even comply with existing rules they must figure lawyers are cheaper
    They know all this in advance they know they will be long gone when the real shit hits the fan it will be someone else’s problem. All development projects are like that those who make the money are long gone when the other expenses are due. Short term profit, it only has to last until the check has cleared, seems to be the mantra of modern business practice.
    uncle frogy

  8. morejello says

    “All the white folks in Bismarck didn’t need to camp out and get shot at and blown up and frozen in order to express their disapproval”
    No, they just showed up to the public hearings that the Army Corps and the pipeline company held. They voiced their concerns when they were asked, and so their concerns were listened to. The tribe, on the other hand, did not attend any of the meetings, nor were they responsive when the ACE specifically tried to include them in the process. This was all determined by a court of law when the tribe sued for an injunction.
    Froggy is right – pipelines are cheaper in the short term, and they’re less of a risk environmentally. A pipeline accident might pollute a drinking water source, necessitating remediation and an alternative source. The alternative to pipelines is rail transport, and when there’s a rail accident there’s as much risk of water contamination plus the additional risk of things like, say, burning an entire town down. Plus there’s far more rail accidents per year than there are pipeline accidents.
    The real problem is again, what Froggy said: they know that when the shit hits the fan, they and their wads of cash will be long gone. That’s been the case with industrial polluters since always, and that’s where real change needs to happen.
    And of course, we wouldn’t need the pipeline OR the rail if we’d stop needing the oil so much. But that’s just crazy talk.

  9. James says

    Napoleon’s solution to explosive’s factories exploding comes to mind. Instead of making complicated safety rules, he simply introduced a law that the manager and his family had to live on site. Problem solved.

  10. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Napoleon’s solution to explosive’s factories exploding comes to mind. Instead of making complicated safety rules, he simply introduced a law that the manager and his family had to live on site. Problem solved.

    Sounds good, which area of a several hundred mile pipeline should the manager live on? And how likely will that section be double-walled compared to the rest of the single-walled pipeline?

  11. shikko says

    @3: Interesting data! It’s actually way worse than your calculation.

    OK, so sources: number of spills/year: https://hip.phmsa.dot.gov/analyticsSOAP/saw.dll?Portalpages.

    I modified the settings to just look at crude. For that, the US averaged 59 “significant” spills per year over the last 20 years. There are about 72,000 miles of crude oil pipeline right now (http://www.pipeline101.com/Where-Are-Pipelines-Located). So that means we average one spill for every 1,220 miles. A 30 mile stretch per your estimate would yield a 2.4% (30/1220) chance annually of a spill along that run, assuming all runs are equally vulnerable.

    Other things to keep in mind include that I don’t know how much the total pipeline length has changed over the last 20 years, and that the geographic distribution of significant spills may not be random. Additionally, I don’t know if above and below ground pipelines have the same spill rate, but a 2.4% chance is a decent back of the envelope for annual spill risk along a run of crude pipeline.

  12. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Thanks shikko #14,
    I’m using as my basis for expected construction the Alaska Pipeline. And my years of working with potent compounds, where if possible engineering solutions (rather than Personal Protective Equipment, PPE), are expected as the first line of defense. All underground gasoline/oil tanks these days require double walls, and many gas stations went out of business rather than upgrade from single walled tanks which leaked into the aquifers. Pipelines should be held to the same standard as underground gas tanks. Double-walled construction.

  13. says


    The tribe, on the other hand, did not attend any of the meetings, nor were they responsive when the ACE specifically tried to include them in the process. This was all determined by a court of law when the tribe sued for an injunction.

    That is a flat out lie, and it would be really fucking nice if people would stop spreading it around. There’s all kinds of propaganda and lies being put out by ETP and all the others in nDakota who have greedily sucked up the oil money. I live here, I know. I’ve been involved for over 6 months. At the very least, you could make an attempt to find out the truth before you spread shit all over the place.

    Here’s an example for you, try to do better next time: http://www.snopes.com/2016/11/28/what-those-dakota-access-pipeline-protesters-dont-tell-you/

  14. starfleetdude says

    Here’s the U.S. District Court judgment ruling that the pipeline construction could proceed. It should be read in its entirety of course, but this from it does support that the tribe was consulted but sometimes the tribe did not choose to meaningfully participate.

    Around the time the cultural survey work began, Dakota Access took its plan public. See Howard Decl., ¶ 12.

    On September 30, 2014, it met with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council to present the pipeline project as part of a larger community-outreach effort. Id., ¶ 22.

    Personnel from Dakota Access also spoke with the Tribe’s Historic Preservation Officer (THPO), Waste’ Win Young, several times over the course of the next month. Id., ¶¶ 23-27.

    At one related meeting, a DAPL archaeologist answered questions about the proposed survey work and invited input from Young on any areas that might be of particular tribal interest. Id., ¶¶ 25- 28.

    The company agreed as well to send the centerline files from its cultural survey to her for review, and did so on November 13. Id., ¶ 28. It never received any response from Young.

    Here’s a link to a PDF document of the ruling:


  15. says

    @shikko #15,
    Thanks! The risk indeed seems to be higher than I originally estimated. It would be interesting to also compare this to other methods of shipping the oil, but even apart from any comparison, it seems like the risk is high enough that they should avoid going anywhere that people live.

  16. Tethys says

    *sigh* I’m so sorry my relatives are such awful racists. Their local racist media is saturated with reports of violent protest and destruction of property by the Indians, and no mention is made about the drinking water, corrupt Governor, or the use of law enforcement agencies to deploy violence against unarmed citizens to protect the interests of a multinational corporation.

  17. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    The double skin concept is widely used in ocean going oil tankers – essentially to prevent the inner skin being breached in the event of a collision or running aground,” Alan explained. “The equivalent for a pipe would be external damage and, yes, a second pipe is likely to afford protection. However, there are other, more cost-effective, solutions such as burying the pipe deeper or, in areas with a higher risk of interference, by placing slabs over it to prevent a line strike.

    This assumes that the pipe is leak-tight until something bangs into it.

    So, uh, how about those oil pipelines where protestors inside the pipe report pinpoints of sunlight shining through?

  18. says

    “Excellent! So just pack up and move the thing to the original, planned location, which isn’t full of uppity, fractious natives who are willing to fight for their land.”

    Can’t do that, it’d inconvenience White Folks!

  19. Dunc says

    morejello, @11:

    [P]ipelines are […] less of a risk environmentally.

    No, this is completely wrong. The question of which mode of transport is safest has been studied quite carefully, and the results are not especially difficult to find if you bother to try, although they are complicated by the question of “what exactly do you mean by safe?”. In terms of tons of product spillage per billion ton-miles per year, pipelines are a bit more than 3 times worse than rail transport (11,286 vs 3,504, over 2005 – 2009) [source: Intermodal safety in the transport of oil, Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Kenneth P. Green, Studies in Energy Transportation, Fraser Institute 2013, page 13 – and note, this is from a study arguing strongly in favour of pipeline transportation].

    Rail transport does come out worse than pipeline transport in terms of number of discrete incidents per billion ton-miles and numbers of injuries or fatalities per billion ton-miles, but it is definitely significantly better in terms of environmental impact. (Note however that the numbers of injuries or fatalities for all modes are so low that statistical noise dominates, and the results can be strongly affected by changing the period of analysis to include or exclude very rare large incidents.)

    See this Forbes article for a good discussion of the various issues and trade-offs involved in choosing between different transport modes.

  20. joel says

    Caine #16,

    The “flat-out lie” is actually exhaustively documented in Judge Boasberg’s ruling:


    Beginning on page 15 the judge gives a timeline of the Army Corps’ and Dakota Access’ attempts to engage the Tribe. Here is a sample from page 24:

    “In the fall, the Corps responded by redoubling its efforts to meet with the Tribe. On September 29, 2015, Ames, in a phone conversation with Chairman Archambault, scheduled a meeting between the Corps and the Tribe’s Vice Chair for October 28. See Ames Decl., ¶ 13. But two days before that meeting, the Tribe canceled “because nobody from the tribe was available to attend.” Id. On the same day, the Tribe also canceled a meeting scheduled for November with Colonel Henderson, promising to meet with him instead “in a few months.” Id., ¶ 14. The Corps, moreover, documented ten different attempts to contact the Tribe over the course of the October to speak about the project. See Tribal Consultation Sheet at 14.”

    And so on. It’s exhaustive reading. Snopes did a good job of debunking clumsy propaganda issued by lobbyists – the judge is working with different material.

  21. says

    joel, I read the ruling (most of it) and it also says other things apart your quotemine, some directly, some indirectly. Here is what I got from it:
    1) Intitial deciding surveys that decided where the pipeline goes were done without tribes participation.
    2) The consultations with tribes are obligatory by law, but to wait for the tribes input or to take them into account are not. All that is necessary is to show an effort to consult (which ACE did), not an effort to actively listen or even collaborate (which neither DA nor ACE did).
    3) When the tribes were invited for consultations in 2015, the route for the pipeline was already decided and set, the most the tribes could eventually do was to wiggle it a litle.
    4) The wiggles in the pipeline were used as an proxy proof for saying that the company is doing everything as the tribes wish it anyways. Just like the black president is used as a proxy proof that racism is over.
    5) The consultations with tribes concerned only tiny portion of the route that fell under the jurisdiction of ACE. The (sensible) request from Standing Rock tribe to consider the project as a whole was ignored due to legalese techicality that would not make sense in any civilised country. A project like this should be considered as a whole and not as a series of independent project – irrespective whether it runs on private land or not, because oil spills effects do not stay in place.
    6) The company started building the pipeline even though some portions of the route were not permitted yet, which screams with huge letters that to them the permissions were a mere technicality and not something to take seriously.
    It is not necessary
    7) If tribes failed to respond quickly and on time (which is difficult for them, since they are not run like companies or army organisations, where those at the top dictate and those down nod and do), their failure to say quickly no was always taken as saying yes. But this should be more like consent in sex – no means no, silence means no, mumble maybe means no and only loud yes means yes. The treatment of tribes in this regards shows a striking parallel with rape culture however, because everything short of forceful no is taken as automatic yes, and even the no is ignored.

    I could say more but I must rush to work.

  22. says

    This whole affair reminds me of one scene in the book “The Sons of the Great Bear” by Lisselotte Wellskopf-Heinrich (Giliell, if you did not read it yet, I think you would enjoy it), AFAIK a well researched book written about a ficticious Lakota tribe during the Black Hills wars.

    During the war the chief of the tribe was invited for negotiations, with enwoys guarantee of free pass. He did go there, he listened to the case the white men made for moving the tribe to a new reservation and he responded accordingly. After a failed attempt to get him drunk a paper was shoved in front of him to sign nevertheless. He tried to explain, that although he is a chief, he cannot just decide such a big issue for the tribe, it does not work like that – he has to consult it with the people first and to the elders, so the tribe as a whole can decide. The white men got angry and he was essentially told “sign or else”. He calmly tried to explain that he does not the authority do as they wish at this time and threats do not change that one iota.
    Subsequently the free pass he got was vaiwed, he was “arrested for mutiny” and imprisoned for a the rest of the war without trial. He was only released when it seemed he would die of pneumonia anyway.

    Now as I said, the book is fictisious. But it seems it is really well researched fiction, since USA made only cosmetical changes in their negotiations with Indians, and they still made no real effort to understand them.

  23. says

    Oh, and one last note to the ruling that is brandied around here by Dacota Access friends – the rulling portains only to the cultural impact on sacred sites. It explicitly states that it does NOT adress environmental issues, because those are not part of this specific case.