On Pipelines And Oil

It’s been half a week since the Inauguration, and I for one am finding it hard to keep up.  Eventually, I hope to post an ongoing log of executive actions, signed bills, and other notable events, but for right now it’s still one by one, dealing with the most important things first.

And this is pretty important.

So it looks like the DAPL review is going forward at speed, and Keystone XL is semi-authorized.  That’s thanks to three executive actions yesterday.  They are three distinct messages; this is the one with teeth. And on the face of it, it’s potentially scary in impact but definitely in line with campaign promises — and, by the language, it’ll be effective.

Background

I’m not getting into all the details; that’s for Wikipedia to do, and they’ve got good articles on both the Keystone XL project and the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Click the links and read; I’ll be here when you’re done.  Pay special attention to the History section in each article.

While you’re reading, there’s also an excellent — though sadly brief — article in Forbes on the subject.  Hopefully that last will be expanded as people learn more.

All caught up?  If you’ve done your reading, you’ll know that both pipelines were acknowledged to be flawed in design, and that the companies putting them in were willing to make some changes in order to prevent likely catastrophic disaster in the future.  Neither group was particularly reasonable, but the present altered plans aren’t particularly horrific as far as pipelines go.

It’s also useful to note that the oil is going to be drilled regardless of whether these projects are completed; the product will just be shipped via train and tractor trailer until the much cheaper pipelines are online.  Pipelines in general are twice as likely to spill (some due to ecoterrorists but more from natural events like earthquakes).  However, trains and trucks are far less efficient, burning vast amounts more fuel getting the crude oil to refineries.

Protests

The DAPL protest at Standing Rock was not the first action against that pipeline project, but it was certainly the most famous.  Protestors argued that the segment of pipeline passing through tribal lands would disrupt a historically sacred area as well as risk polluting a major water source for the tribe, Lake Oahe, under which part of the pipeline was to be laid.  Construction continued even before the required impact studies were completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers (the authority in public lands), and protestors clashed with construction workers as well as, eventually, law enforcement brought in from dozens of areas to protect construction.  Eventually, as things reached a fever pitch at the site, President Obama issued an executive order to halt construction while the environmental impact study was undertaken, and it is presently underway.

The Keystone XL (Export Limited, not extra-large) is only one phase of that massive project, and it was designed to connect the Alberta terminal directly through the US oil reserve farm at Baker, Montana.  The original route was rejected by a DEP study due to its passage over the Sandhills region and a major aquifer formation, and a reroute was planned.  President Obama endorsed the new plan personally, but other agencies offered objections that ultimately stalled the project — apparently for political reasons.  Obama himself stated in 2015 that “It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter. And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”

Considerations

I have to say, I have been unable to get my head around opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. In general, of course, we should be moving into other energy sources than oil, and we need to move quickly. Then too, the oil boom in the Dakotas and Canada is due to a particularly messy harvesting method, and I can see opposing that — except we’re not. The protest movement and political opposition has been to a massive pipeline, ostensibly because we’re afraid of leaks, but according to internal policy memos between State, Interior, and Commerce, because there’s opposition to an increase in oil production due to emissions.

But if we don’t move oil via pipelines, we move it anyway, by truck or train or tanker. That’s horrifically energy inefficient, burning massive amounts of fuel in transit. Oil trucks wreck and spill and burn on the highways; almost every tanker leaks — a lot. Plus, there’s all those salaries for truck drivers, rail workers, and load specialists… who belong to the Teamsters Union.

And suddenly it starts to make more sense.

If the opposition to the Keystone pipeline project was due to safety concerns, I’ve no doubt but that a high-tech pipeline auto-seal system could have been demanded and accepted. One was offered for Keystone in 2014, after all.  But that’s not the case. This is at least in part about union power and union jobs.

Oh, it’s still true that the oil harvesting methods used in the Dakotas are nasty, and the pipeline is likely to have spills. But there are engineering solutions to both of those problems and we’re not even working on them. Instead, the message is, “Pipelines are evil! No more oil!”

Well, stop driving your car, go solar, and turn your house lights off. Stop with the cell phone and the internet and your backyard heated pool and your air conditioning and electric heat. Conserve energy, and we can save oil.

But protesting a pipeline?  Maybe if it’s in your back yard.

Speaking of the Standing Rock pipeline protest, I’m more sympathetic. This is a far less vital project that they tried to route through tribal lands because it was cheap. The tribe protested and it became a cause célèbre — and, in my opinion, they have the right to oppose it. You don’t stick an oil pipeline through a major water supply unless you absolutely have to, and the Dakotas are bloody huge so you don’t have to.

Having said that, though — at present, the crude is being moved largely by train, which while nowhere near as inefficient as truck is still pretty awful — 33 a day. (Again, we see the Teamsters Union losing jobs.) We also have these trains moving along the Missouri River, so a spill, while less likely on train than pipeline, would probably have a larger impact.

Bottom line? The DAPL needs a new route, which could have been done two years ago. Instead, the company went ahead and spent billions on construction — and, right now, is dancing on the knife edge of collapse because of tribal opposition (justified, IMO) and the Army Corps of Engineers unexpectedly doing their jobs conducting an environmental impact assessment.

Foreign Meddling

There is one additional factor which, normally, I’d never point out: The organizations protesting this include a large number of sources for funding and direction, most of which are at least marginally acceptable. However, some of the most violent protestors have been trained and funded through organizations linked to the Fourth Internationale, part of the international socialist movement. Funding and support for two other groups comes indirectly from Russian businesses. This is minor in comparison to the vast outpouring of public support for these protests, but it’s still worth observing that Russia wants us to pay more for oil and the international Socialists (in part China) want to gain influence in our protest movements.

(NOTE:  Due to the nature of this information as regards funding sources, I can provide no documentation.  Dig into the history of the Sioux pipeline fights and you can find what I did — but substantiating it is difficult.  As a result, treat the preceding paragraph as speculation, especially if you want to sue me for defamation.  I will, however, feel safe in predicting you’ll hear more about all this through the FBI in about eighteen months, give or take.)

It’s also worth mentioning that we do this exact same sort of thing in China, Russia, and in fact all over the world, so it’s pretty hypocritical of us to get indignant. But, again, this is stuff people either don’t know, or conveniently choose to forget.  If you want to learn more, the information is freely available through reliable sites; check out the Wikipedia pages on USAID, the IRI, and the NDI for a place to begin.

Executive Orders (Finally!)

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, there are three separate items dealing with the two pipeline projects.  Two are memoranda, basically informing the Army Corps of Engineers and similar agencies that the President wants the pipelines.  They’re meaningful but have no force in law; the precise instruction is to review pursuant to all applicable laws and acts and with respect to water quality impact and grant permission if appropriate — which is what’s happening anyway.  He’s further asking for speed, which is not happening on its own.  But really, these change little.

It’s the executive order that has teeth.  In it, President Trump directs that streamlining of select “high priority” infrastructure projects can be requested by governors, cabinet members and department heads, or by the head of the Council on Environmental Quality (vacant; subject to Senate confirmation).  Deadlines can be adjusted pursuant to applicable law.  In other words, in case of dire need (as determined by the Chairman alone), projects can be rushed through with minimal public review.

This last is unlikely to matter with regard to the two pipeline projects unless they are delayed by internal red tape beyond reason or expectation.  However, we are likely to see future projects get pushed through rapidly, and environmentalist organizations will face steep hurdles blocking things the government wants.

And, to give credit where it’s due (albeit grudgingly), another Presidential Memorandum was issued alongside these three which directs that all new pipelines be constructed entirely from American-made steel.  Given that a moderate percentage of recent pipeline breaks were determined to be due to the use of low-quality materials from overseas, with little quality control and no option for legal recourse, this is more than a gesture toward quality or a way to curry favor from the steel industry.  You’ll note, however, that it’s likely to remove at least some union objections to pipeline projects in the future.

Bottom line?  This is not an automatic death knell for the entire environment, and no doubt most beaches and waterways and Yosemite will be protected; even Big Oil doesn’t want that kind of bad press.  But if I were a spotted owl, a sandhill crane, a commercial fisherman, or a Standing Rock Sioux, I’d definitely be very worried right now.

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