Energy Transfer Partners’ not yet operational Dakota Access pipeline leaked 84 gallons – or about a bathtub-full – of shale oil at a pump station in Spink County, South Dakota, on 4 April. The station stands roughly 100 miles south-east of the site of indigenous protest encampments along the Missouri river, where for months in 2016 the Standing Rock Sioux’s stand against Dakota Access captivated the world.
Despite enduring controversy over the Dakota Access pipeline, the South Dakota department of environment and natural resources did not issue a press release about the mishap because the department deals with pipeline leaks all the time. The department only issues a press release when a detected leak threatens drinking water, fisheries or public health. It logged the Dakota Access incident in its database, but the spill remained unknown to the public for over a month until local reporter Shannon Marvel broke the story for Aberdeen, South Dakota’s American News on Wednesday.
The relatively minor leak demonstrates the risk of technological and human failure inherent in crude oil pipelines. Just a few months earlier, on 5 December 2016, a North Dakota landowner discovered a massive, undetected 176,000-gallon oil leak polluting a creek 150 miles north of Standing Rock.
A month after that, a pipeline farther north in the Western Canadian province of Saskatchewan leaked over 52,000 gallons of crude on the territory of the Ocean Man First Nation. As indigenous peoples, ranchers and environmentalists have repeatedly stated, the question is when and where pipelines will leak – not if.
As Donald Trump and the oil industry gear up to push forward Keystone XL and other pipelines across the US, we can expect talking heads to take to the press and cable networks to tell us that pipelines are safer than trains for the transport of crude, that regulations have stolen jobs in the heartland and that energy independence from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is paramount to our national economic and security interests.
From corporate offices in Houston and Dallas and network headquarters in midtown Manhattan, these snake oil salesmen will tell us not to worry – the benefits of pipelines far outweigh the costs. Drill, baby, drill, and America will be great again.
To them, the benefits of pipelines look pretty sweet. Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren – who has a reported net worth of $4.4bn – lives in a 23,000-square-foot home on 10 acres in Dallas’s elite Preston Hollow neighborhood, where houses sell for tens of millions of dollars and where Warren’s six-bedroom, 13-bath home features a four-lane bowling alley, a chip-and-putt green, a pole-vault pit and a 200-seat private theater. When his Dallas mansion isn’t cutting it, Warren escapes to an 11,000-acre ranch north-west of Austin, where giraffes, peccaries and Indian bison roam the property. America is awfully great if you’re Kelcy Warren.
But who is forced to live with the costs of pipelines and the lavish wealth they build?
Not the predominantly white residents of the city of Bismarck, North Dakota – the pipeline was rerouted from upriver of their settlement out of concern that it threatened the city’swater supply .
No, instead the Dakota Access pipeline – not yet operational but already leaky – crosses under the Missouri river just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation. There it threatens the water supply of a community where 41% of citizens live in poverty. In Standing Rock, adequate homes, schools and hospitals are few and far between, but a brand-new $3.8bn pipe, which costs $1bn more than the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs budget, is now in the ground. At any moment, a leak might contaminate the water supply of Standing Rock and the 17 million people downstream who rely on the Missouri river.
What conservatives and centrists and even some liberals really mean when they say that we need pipelines in order to achieve “energy independence” is that in the dogged pursuit of the last drops of the planet’s oil wealth, some people are expendable.
In the short term, the expendables are the indigenous communities, ranchers and workers forced to live under the constant threat of petroleum poisoning. In the long-term, the expendables include all future generations condemned to a planet cooked by greenhouse gas.
Rerouting pipelines might protect a few expendables in the short term, but it cannot save our planet and its peoples in the long run. To protect the planet and future generations from a world superheated by fossil fuel, we must stand with indigenous peoples, ranchers and environmentalists against pipelines that lock-in even more emissions into the global economy.
A few dozen gallons of oil spewing from a pump in South Dakota doesn’t just prove that the water protectors have been right all along. The pool of tar it left behind is also a warning of what’s to come if more black snakes slither into the ground.
We need a just transition now more than ever. Not just for our leaky pipelines, but for our failing moral infrastructure, which has unequivocally defined indigenous peoples, the poor and our children as collateral so that a few men can frolic in palaces, safari with giraffes on their own properties and become unfathomably wealthy.
As the Trump administration attempts to ham-fist the Keystone XL pipeline down the throats of indigenous peoples, ranchers and the mother earth we all share, we must stand and say no. A better world is possible and indeed deeply necessary right now. Let’s fight for it.