Above: A service truck drives past an oil well in North Dakota, November 2014.
Like the sections of pipe they are assembled from, pipelines with names like Algonquin, Dominion and Kinder Morgan/TCG CT Expansion are interconnected, and affect a long string of communities crisscrossing the country. The 2.5 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines frequently leak and rupture, a 2012 ProPublica investigation found.
The pipeline aggregation enacted by the past and current administrations represents a clear shift in societal priorities: US communities and regions are no long the secure recipients of outside energy but instead are subjected to extractive exploitation on their own home ground — with few avenues for citizen protection.
The interests of the oil, gas and pipeline industries are connected — and so are the related problems that all of us face. No matter where fossil fuels are extracted, carried, refined, exported or used, the need to avoid contamination and deter climate change connects all people. It’s no longer about just one community’s backyard. And to stall climate change and contamination, people need to connect the dots.
How did fossil fuel development become so pervasive? Let’s take a look at a few milestones that, in recent years, have deepened the pattern of relentless extraction.
The Keystone Pipeline and the Keystone Clone
Many environmentally concerned citizens remember climate scientist James Hansen’s famous warning that proceeding with the Keystone XL pipeline would be “game over for the environment.” That’s why former President Obama’s 2015 decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline was celebrated as a major environmental victory. It was thought to be “game over” for the Keystone XL — but did Obama’s ban actually put an end to the pipeline? Not really.
The powerful public opposition to Keystone XL had taught the gas and oil industry (and their government allies) something. Giving a single name to over 3,000 miles of pipeline furnished environmentalists with a broad and brand-able organizing target. After the Keystone XL defeat, the industry figured out a way to get their pipelines built by doing just the opposite. Instead of going big, they went small. What journalist Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog calls “the Keystone XL Clones” were a series of pipelines, designed and put into place to do exactly the same thing as the seemingly nixed Keystone XL — carry tar sands down to the Gulf Coast refineries, owned by Koch Industries.
Using a relatively new regulatory workaround called Nationwide Permit 12, enacted in 2011 under the Obama administration, pipeline companies were allowed to break “pipelines into different pieces, calling each piece a different name, rather than one gigantic name, in order to connect all those pieces and carry that oil,” Horn said in an interview on my radio program, Connect the Dots. Nationwide Permit 12s were supposed to be applicable to half an acre (or smaller) sized pipeline segments. But according to Horn, “large pipelines, thousands of half acre projects, are coupled together and approved through scores of Permit 12s in order to avoid public transparency.”
Conferred by the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Nationwide Permit 12 has been used many times, including for the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline and for the Gulf Coast pipeline. Most famously, it permitted Energy Transfer Partners, the builders of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), to cross Lake Oahe, the move that sparked the 2016 Standing Rock protests.
“This is the longest pipeline under a river in the US,” said Sara Jumping Eagle, an Oglala tribal member, Standing Rock Reservation resident, pediatrician and plaintiff in a current lawsuit that contends that the Dakota Access pipeline should cease operation.
Indigenous communities first heard that the DAPL pipeline was to be built under their water and food source, Lake Oahe, when surveyors came to the region, Jumping Eagle said. Next, “the company came and made a presentation. They already had a plan to build it there without having consulted the tribes beforehand.”
The pipeline is monitored electronically from Texas, and most existing leaks in water or on land were identified by local farmers or residents, not by the far-away technology. While the company assured that no leakage would occur, it planned to use safety monitors that “have not worked in the past,” says Jumping Eagle.
“We know that DAPL has already leaked in South Dakota before even going into full use — so, it’s just a matter of time before this pipeline leaks. And if and when it does, the Lakota nations that depend directly on the Missouri River water have no guarantee that we could still live in this area,” Jumping Eagle said. “The federal government has abdicated their responsibility for our public health. There is no guarantee that the glass of water I am giving to my daughter is free from benzene or other chemicals used in the fracking and oil industry.”
From the outset, environmental groups opposed Permit 12 because it bypassed the traditional environmental impact statements (EIS) required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the past, the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and other relevant agencies were required to write up a lengthy document outlining the environmental impacts of all pipeline projects.
As opposed to the typical several-hundred-page document, a Permit 12 is “typically three to four pages,” Horn said in our Connect the Dots interview. It undergoes far less scrutiny, and takes citizens out of the process. “You don’t have to do public hearings, there is no public commenting period, and basically it’s an under-the-radar way to approve pipelines,” he added.
Jumping Eagle told me, “The Army Corps of Engineers claims that they sent the tribe emails, but an email that gives you due notice does not replace prior consultation and consent.”
On a policy level, the Obama administration’s advancement of Permit 12 gutted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was enacted in 1970 under Richard Nixon, who in his 1970 State of the Union Address spoke of the need that NEPA was developed to meet:
“The great question … is shall we make peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land and our water?… Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American…. The price tag is high. Through our years of past carelessness, we have incurred a debt to nature. Now that debt is being called.”
NEPA’s preamble states the aim:
To declare national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.
Normalizing the use of Permit 12 circumvented NEPA. The failure to do a complete EIS has already resulted in environmental infringements. For example, Dakota Access now faces allegations of misconduct filed by the North Dakota Public Service Commission. According to a Commission memorandum, “There were a number of deficiencies and possible violations.” Whatever the Commission’s eventual decision, potential fines for these violations won’t exceed $200,000.
Although much of the public was not paying close attention to Obama’s pro-fossil-fuel policy decisions, several media outlets reported that Obama clearly signaled his pro-gas and oil industry policy intentions during his 2012 re-election campaign. At a stop in Cushing, Oklahoma, the president famously stood before massive pipes, and signed an executive order to expedite permitting for pipelines and other related infrastructure.
“Obama’s Worst Speech Ever,” was how Joe Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress, characterized the speech. He quotes the former president:
Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.
Rolling Stone called the speech “a crushing defeat for enviros and clean energy activists.”
The de facto use of Nationwide Permit 12 by executive order under Obama was just a start. This regulatory bypass was something the oil and gas industry sought to codify into law. Over the course of the next several years, Horn noted, “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), American Petroleum Institute (API), Koch Industries, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many others” had lobbied for a bill that would permanently instate the permit bypass. This bypass was ultimately enacted through legislation — within a highway construction bill.
President Obama signed the Koch-backed bill that sped up permitting on December 4, 2015 — just eight days before he signed the Paris Climate Accord.
Though many see the Paris Accord as Obama’s shining moment for the environment, the plan to speed the construction of fossil fuel infrastructures cast a shadow over the US’s well-publicized but halfhearted participation in the agreement. Moreover, although the Paris Accord was significant, it contains no enforcement mechanisms: There are no penalties for breaching provisions.
As Trump stood poised to withdraw the US from the Paris Accord in May, New York Senator Charles Schumer spoke out. “If the United States were to un-sign the agreement, all of the progress in combatting climate change would be undone in one fell swoop,” Schumer said.
Obama’s signing of the Paris Accord and Trump’s exiting the same agreement (in June 2017) certainly expressed different intentions: to protect climate on the one hand, and to deny that need on the other. However, throughout the Obama administration, the steady expansion of fossil fuel development and infrastructures proceeded apace — and it continues to do so under Trump.
It’s a cautionary tale for these dire days, when many are eager to pin their hopes on the next self-styled climate hero — even with evidence that some would-be good guys (like Obama) have found themselves compelled to push fossil-fuel-friendly policies.
Back home in New York, Schumer isn’t showing much enthusiasm for climate leadership. Since 2014, New York constituents have urged the senator to oppose the Algonquin Incremental Market Pipeline (AIM), a high-gauge gas pipeline that runs through Indian Point, a nuclear power plant with a poor safety record. Due to the documented incidence of pipeline explosions cited earlier, AIM poses a risk to 20 million people in the New York Metro area, while also releasing methane, the major contributor to climate change. The Federal Energy Commission (FERC), which regulates interstate pipelines, is funded by the pipeline industry — with a poor record of accountability for environmental concerns. Schumer recently voted in two new nominees to FERC, described by The Hill as “an energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and … a Pennsylvania utilities regulator.”
Similarly, although the New York Times recently hailed California Gov. Jerry Brown “as the nation’s de facto negotiator with the world on the environment,” Brown’s record is mixed. With well-known family ties to and donor support from the gas and oil industry, Brown, “has not spoken out against fracking, much less banned it,” journalist Mark Hertsgaard points out.
Environmental groups were also highly critical of Brown’s recently signed cap-and-trade bill for lifting “several suggestions near-verbatim from an industry Wishlist — drafted by a law firm contracted by the Western States Petroleum Association — of proposals for how to continue the cap-and-trade program,” writes Kate Aronoff of In These Times.
Moreover, the purchase of carbon offsets, the basis for the bill, allows “a polluter like Chevron … [to] continue polluting as usual, or even process tar sands and thus increase its emissions. Offsets let polluters off the hook while allowing pollution hotspots to perpetuate, condemning communities like mine to decades more of toxic pollution,” writes Michelle Chan in AlterNet.
“One of the things about the Democrats is that they talk out of both sides of their mouth,” says longtime climate activist Nancy Romer, who is on the steering committee of the People’s Climate Movement-New York. “They act as though they are defending the climate, and meanwhile they facilitate the fossil fuel industry. The Republicans are just all out for the fossil fuel industry. Period.”
It is becoming ever clearer that protecting the climate will require holding elected officials on both sides of the aisle accountable.