Dakota Pipeline Protesters: You’re Spending Your Energy on the Wrong Issue – Lobby Hard for Safer Pipelines

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on December 12, 2016

The protest by environmentalists, Native Americans and others against building the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota with a pipeline terminal in Illinois has been in the news for some time now.

Due to the protest, on Dec. 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that easements will not be approved to build the pipeline under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe.

Lake Oahe is in close proximity to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation. Members of the tribe fear potential contamination of their water supply and object to encroachment on sacred tribal land.

In a Dec. 4 press release, Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army (Civil Works), stated, “… there’s more work to do. … The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing. Consideration of alternative routes would be best accomplished through an environmental impact statement with full public input and analysis.”

If the initial environmental impact statement for the Dakota Access Pipeline was inadequate, the gaps need to be closed before the project moves forward.

However, the pipeline project itself should not be canceled.

Let’s separate the issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline with how environmentalists feel about oil and natural gas in general and the pipelines that transport each.

Many environmentalists oppose pipelines in principle because they are part of our fossil fuel infrastructure, oil and natural gas are sources of carbon dioxide harmful to the environment and because of the risk of damage to the environment in the event of oil spills.

Transport via pipeline, however, is safer and more reliable than by moving oil in tank cars via rail, sometimes through large population centers.

Environmentalists argue that much of our pipeline infrastructure is more than 50 years old and is therefore dangerous. The same can be said about rail lines that also transport oil. Where pipelines and rails are unsafe, they need to be repaired or replaced. Crude oil will be transported to market inland one way or another, if not by pipeline, then by rail.

Many environmentalists fail to realize that fossil fuels and the pipelines that transport them are critical to our economy and standard of living. Pipelines transport the natural gas and oil used to heat our homes, fuel our cars, run our factories, and generate the electricity that powers electric vehicles.

Natural gas and oil transported via pipelines are the building blocks for everyday products upon which our modern society is built, including a multitude of industrial and consumer products as well as pharmaceuticals. Both directly and indirectly, natural gas and oil provide millions of jobs.

Pipelines are ubiquitous and have been part of our national energy infrastructure since soon after natural gas and oil were discovered more than 150 years ago.

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are currently more than 2.3 million miles of pipelines crisscrossing the U.S. that transport crude oil, refined petroleum products, various chemical and petrochemical products, and natural gas.

The only way to transport natural gas is via pipeline, from the wellhead through a national network of transmission lines, through local distribution lines, through gas mains that run under our roads and streets and through lateral lines into our homes.

Many people favor the transition toward non-fossil based methods of generating energy, which I fully support. Solar and wind technologies have advanced significantly and will continue to do so, and they will replace fossil fuels where possible when economic and social factors drive the change.

However, fossil fuels — oil and natural gas — will always play a major role as a source of energy in our country, as well as raw materials for products that are critical to our standard of living.

Environmentalists should be strong advocates for the transition to natural gas and away from coal for electric power generation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This is especially important as the number of electric vehicles grow.

Environmentalists should intensify their focus on making pipelines safer, which will become more difficult under a Trump administration, but that should not deter the effort. Environmentalists should continue to advocate for higher gas mileage standards to further reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles.

Pipeline companies need to understand that any oil spill is one spill too many, and they should always be on a continuous journey to eliminate them.

Oil and natural gas will always play a major role in our lives — both as a fuel and as a feedstock for consumer and industrial products that form the basis of our economy and standard of living. Let’s work towards minimizing their adverse impact on the environment.

Stan Silverman is the former president and CEO of PQ Corp. He also is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and is vice chairman of the board of trustees of Drexel University. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

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