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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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During the vitriolic election season of 2016, a series of highly publicized protests broke out at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation--which rests along the banks of the Missouri River in North Dakota--over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL): a $3.7 billion, 1,172 mile pipeline intended to transport oil from the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota south to an oil tank farm in southern Illinois. Since late 2016, Standing Rock has become a rallying point for environmentalists and defenders of indigenous rights, with protestors arguing that the pipeline crosses ground sacred to the Sioux nations along with the Arikara and Northern Cheyenne tribes; opponents of the pipeline also assert that the pipeline, which runs 10 miles upstream from Standing Rock’s water system, could devastate the area’s water supply in the event of a spill. In regards to the environmental issues surrounding DAPL, the discriminatory nature of the pipeline along with the uncertain environmental effects outweigh the economic and infrastructural benefits touted by DAPL’s proponents.

Among the more damning claims against the pipeline is the issue of environmental racism. Originally, planners intended for the pipeline to run past North Dakota’s capital, Bismarck, but the Army Corps of Engineers ultimately shifted the route towards Standing Rock out of concerns that the project might contaminate Bismarck’s water supply‒the very same concern of the Standing Rock protesters. We should also note that while Bismarck’s population is overwhelmingly caucasian (92.4%), Standing Rock is almost entirely comprised of Native Americans, excluding protesters. Opponents of the pipeline have rallied around the decision to reroute, with vocal critics such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson recalling a long history of environmental exploitation at the expense of Native Americans: “They have lost land for settlers to farm, more land for gold in the Black Hills, and then again even more land for the dam that was built for hydropower. When will the taking stop?” While we should be careful before ascribing racial animus to the regulators’ decision to reroute the pipeline, it is imperative to remember that the choice to reroute does nothing to alleviate the environmental risks of the pipeline itself. The effectual truth, then, is that the Corps’ decision to reroute changes only the groups of people who would be impacted in the event of a spill. Therefore, the rationale behind the rerouting of DAPL is dubious at best, and constitutes a continued exploitation of Native Americans under the guise of economic development. At its core, the Dakota Access Pipeline is, as Kyle Powys Whyte‒ a professor of environmental justice and indigenous studies at Michigan State‒ puts it, an infringement on climate justice: the principle laid forth in the Paris Agreements that establishes that “it is ethically wrong for some groups of people to suffer the detrimental effects of climate change more than others.”

In fact, the tribes of Standing Rock Indian Reservation find themselves in a position of acute environmental vulnerability. In early 2015, 3 million gallons of contaminated waste water made its way into the North Dakota section of the Missouri River, which is connected to Standing Rock’s water supply. Although the Missouri is exceptionally long, surely such a spill will lessen the purity of the region’s waters. The notion of subjecting Standing Rock to additional threats to its water supply seems ludicrous when we consider the fact that the area’s drinking water is equally, if not more at risk than other possible sites. Recalling the Army Corps of Engineers decision to reroute the pipeline away from Bismarck out of concerns of water contamination, it becomes difficult to ascertain why the Army Corps chose as unsuitable a site as Standing Rock. While the Corps’ rationale has been discussed above, the point remains that Standing Rock is a decidedly unsuitable location for DAPL because a spill would exacerbate the area’s already at-risk water supply.

Alongside environmental racism is the issue of the pipeline’s actual environmental impact. In 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers carried out a limited review of the pipeline’s environmental impact, finding that (sic), “Given the engineering design, proposed installation methodology, quality of material selected, operations measures and response plans the risk of an inadvertent release in, or reaching, Lake Oahe is extremely low.” However, once Standing Rock entered into the national lexicon and the protests became highly public, the Army began a formal “Environmental Impact Assessment” (EIS) of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Upon the departure of Barack Obama from the Oval Office, however, President Trump signed an executive order, encouraging the Army Corps of Engineer to abandon the EIS and expedite the process of issuing final permits. Thus, no comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the Dakota Access Pipeline has been carried out. Although supporters of the pipeline have lauded the President for supporting construction workers and infrastructure, the order to move forward with the project without full understanding of its environmental impact reeks of imprudence. Moreover, any jobs generated by the construction of the pipeline are temporary and will disappear upon the completion of the pipeline; thus, it appears as though President Trump has sacrificed long-term environmental stability for easy, short lasting political victories. With the catastrophic effects of oil spills on full display during the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, it is mind-bogglingly irrational for the President to greenlight DAPL without fully understanding its impact on the ecosystem. The White House ought to be weary of another large-scale, Flint-esque drinking water catastrophe but given Donald Trump’s abysmal environmental record, government-sponsored inquiry into the environmental effects of the pipeline remains unlikely. And so the purity of Standing Rock’s water supply will remain in an unacceptable state of uncertainty for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless the Dakota Access Pipeline has generated more than a one sided discussion; Bette Grande ‒ a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a right-wing environmental group ‒ suggests that “If it’s [the pipeline] not completed, the project’s private investors will lose billions of dollars. That result would have a chilling effect on private investment in future traditional energy projects.” In one sense, Grande makes a decent point. Shutting down the pipeline certainly would send a message to investors that the federal government intends to heavily scrutinize “traditional” energy but that does not necessarily mean that investors will simply stop investing in energy. A far more likely scenario would be for investors to simply direct their investments down the path of least resistance and towards less cumbersome projects such as clean energy projects. After all, five times as many Americans work in clean energy than in fossil fuels in 2016. It follows, then, that investment diverted from “traditional” energy towards renewable energy would reach and benefit far more workers. Thus, not only would diverting investments away from fossil fuels create more long-term jobs, it would lessen the United States’ carbon footprint and constitute a stride towards energy independence. And so Grande’s assertion that shutting down DAPL will stymie investment should actually be welcomed as a step away from a dubious, environmentally unfriendly project and towards economic growth and energy sustainability.

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