Another pipeline ensnared

Author Tom Fowler

What’s the biggest news in US energy infrastructure these days? Ask a 2nd grader.

What’s the biggest news in US energy infrastructure these days? Ask a 2nd grader.

As I sat with my 7-year-old in the elementary school cafeteria one morning this week, one of her friends ran up with some shocking news: ‘bad guys’ are trying to build a pipeline that will leak chemicals into a river that Native Americans own! And with that, the Dakota Access pipeline construction project joins a growing list of mainstream energy boogeymen.

Inaccuracies aside, it’s not a complete surprise that a kid in Houston, North America’s energy capital, would have some idea about a crude pipeline project — Energy Transfer is Houston-based although the pipeline is under construction 1,000 miles north, in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. But it shows just how quickly a project that largely seemed like a done deal with just about all its permits in hand – even more so that the late Keystone XL project – can go from back of the Business section to Page 1 almost overnight.

Just a few years ago most Americans were largely unaware of the role pipelines play in their daily lives and their ubiquity. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, married with the spread of social media, helped set the stage for wider oil industry awareness. But it wasn’t until environmental groups realized faltering efforts to stop oil sands production in remote Alberta could be more effective by focusing on the planned conduit for new production – TransCanada’s KeystoneXL pipeline – that that field of battle changed.

Since Keystone XL garnered attention there have been plenty of visuals to help pipeline opponents make their case – such as ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline spilling — literally — into suburban backyards in Arkansas in March 2013. But Dakota Access, or DAPL as the industry calls it, is starting to provide some visuals of its own.

Last week protestors entered a construction site near Mandan, North Dakota, and scuffled with security personnel, according to the Morton county sheriff’s department. Video of the event was streamed online. Later, Green party presidential candidate Jill Stein spray-painted a bulldozer that had already be tagged by other protestors while cameras looked on. The sheriff’s department says it has issued a warrant for her arrest for criminal trespass and criminal mischief, both misdemeanors.

The spotlight on DAPL is only expected to get brighter. Today a federal judge in the District of Columbia may rule on efforts to stop the construction. At the same time, North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered “small numbers” of National Guard troops to back up law enforcement at the site of expected protests near Mandan.

The cameras will be watching and I can’t wait to see what my elementary school analyst will report next week.