Pipeline incidents remain a constant amid Standing Rock protests

Jan. 25, 2016 – The Dakota Access Pipeline Project announced that its permit to construct a pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois was approved by the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

The pipeline would connect the Bakken and Three Forks production sites in North Dakota to those established in Illinois and transport 740,000 barrels of oil per day. The project was to be completed by the end of 2016.

By July 27 legal representatives of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe whose land would be intersected by the pipeline development filed a complaint against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Dakota Access.

Shorty after the lawsuit was filed protests began and continue now.

On Sept. 9, the Department of Justice, Department of the Interior and Department of the Army requested the Dakota Access Pipeline halt construction 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.

As recently as Oct. 28, 141 protestors were arrested in North Dakota.

While the protests surrounding the Dakota Pipeline are unprecedented, they are part of a larger narrative of environmental issues in the U.S. concerning regulation, according to Doug Hayes, a staff attorney at the Sierra Club.

In the lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the group was accused of not completing an environmental impact statement — a process required by the National Environmental Policy Act — before approving the pipeline development.

Passed by Congress in 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act seeks to promote environmental consideration by requiring federal projects to undergo environmental assessments and impact statements prior to building.

So what has been the impact of pipeline development in the U.S.? 

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation keeps public data on pipeline incidents spanning 20 years from 1996 to 2015.

“Significant” incidents include those that result in death or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization, cause more than $50,000 in damages, release five barrels or more of a dangerous liquid or 50 barrels of another substance and those causing fire or explosion.

The graph below indicates the number of incidents reported nationally each year under these criteria from 1996 to 2015. On average, there are 283 incidents per year with the most occurring in 2005 at 336, closely followed by 2015 at 328. That’s nearly one incident per day.


Just this year the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed new regulations addressing safety requirements for natural gas pipelines. The updates seek to reduce the number of incidents per year and therefor reduce the emission of methane.

While incidents per year remain constant, fatalities nationally have decreased significantly as indicated in the graph below. Fatalities peaked in 1996 at 53 deaths but decrease and level off by 2002. Average number of deaths per year is 17.


When compared to national numbers, North Dakota has differing trends. Incidents per year remained low until 2007 when they began to rise, peaking in 2013 at 12 occurrences as shown in the graph below.


This change in incidents coincides with increased production at the Bakken site following a 2008 USGS assessment of the formation’s oil reserves and consistent increased production at the Three Forks site.

The USGS survey conducted another assessment of the North Dakota sites in 2013 and determined a potential output of 7.38 billion barrels of oil. This is enough to supply U.S. oil demands for one year making Bakken and Three Forks the highest volume continuous production site in the country.

In other words, oil production at these sites is necessary to bridge the gap between the 7.4 million barrels of oil per day the U.S. produces and the 11 million it imports to meet demands, according to the USGS.

The current proposed pipeline route which intersects the land of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is a reroute of original plans to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota, according to original permits.

The potential hazards of a spill upstream from the state’s capital was deemed too great and the current route was developed as a result.




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