The Long-Lasting Risks of the Dakota Access Pipeline
By: Sharon Chen, 4th year student
Throughout the United States, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies are celebrating a monumental victory since the Obama Administration called the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to a halt. Trending as “#NoDAPL” on various social media outlets, the Native protest stands in opposition of a 1,172 mile-long pipeline designed to transport crude oil from its source in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. Other Native tribes, environmental activists from 30 different organizations, and Midwestern landowners alike have opted to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. Opponents are worried about the risk of oil spilling into the Missouri River, according to a report by CNN.
Water pollution and restricted water access on tribal and federal lands are not new problems. For example, the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the US, has continually battled with Peabody Western Coal Company over water rights. The company’s coal slurry pipeline takes pristine water from the Navajo Aquifer, the main source of clean water for the tribe. Most other wells are contaminated by arsenic or uranium. With the scarcity of water on the rise, there is considerable concern for such companies maintaining so much control over non-municipal water. Dr. Daniel Higgins, who worked on the Arid Lands Resource Studies with the University of Arizona – Tucson, states that “any reasonable person who looks at the data” can see that water depletion in two major Navajo and Hopi cities is “directly related to Peabody’s groundwater withdrawals.” In another instance reported by BBC, countless Californians derided the multinational corporation Nestlé in 2015 for extracting 36 million gallons of water from the San Bernardino National Forest during a period of drastic drought to ever hit in the past 5 years.
The risk of oil spills from bursting pipelines is also not a recent phenomenon. The Associated Press for the Chicago Tribune backs this up, stating that since 2009, “the annual number of significant accidents on oil and petroleum pipelines has shot up by almost 60 percent, roughly matching the rise in U.S. crude oil production.” Notable oil disasters include a 2011 spill in Michigan, BP’s 2011 Deepwater Horizon Spill off the Gulf of Mexico, a 2013 spill in Arkansas, and a spill off the California coastline in 2015. Corrosion and structural flaws generally cause the majority of breaks in older pipelines, but this is also an issue in newer pipelines as well. Brigham McCown, who served as acting administrator of the Pipeline Safety Administration during the George W. Bush’s presidency stated, “Age alone doesn’t necessarily make a pipeline safe, or unsafe.” Supporters of the Dakota Access Pipeline argue it will be built with safety as a priority, but weathering over the years will undoubtedly take its toll.
Why do we continue to invest in fossil fuels that perpetuate environmental racism when a future of renewable energy promises a cleaner and more sustainable future? Bloomberg reports that by 2030, “more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added,” overtaking the usage of coal, crude oil, and natural gas. The Paris Agreement passed by the United Nations in December 2015 includes vows from more than 180 countries who agree to cut carbon emissions generated by fossil fuels. As of April 2016, AZ Central reports that Peabody Energy has gone bankrupt and that the coal industry is “enduring the worst slump in decades” due to the move towards renewable energy. It only seems natural to abandon the Dakota Access Pipeline, and instead focus more on clean energy development that will not pollute or detract from our national water supply.
The United States has the potential to become a global leader in clean energy and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, thereby reducing its risk of domestic oil spills and international dependence on crude oil exports. Sustainable resource development is a possibility that remains open for pursuit.
Sharon L. Chen is a 4th year Molecular Environmental Biology student at the University of California, Berkeley with a passion for environmental outreach, sustainable development, and human health.