Over the last few weeks, oil pipelines have been making headlines in the news. The Dakota Access pipeline — designed to transport 470,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois — has become a lightning rod for an array of issues, including historic tribal claims on the privately owned land through which the pipeline will run.
We believe that the increased visibility about the dangers posed by pipelines has created an opportunity to take a closer look at what pipeline construction means for the environment and wildlife as a whole. The 2.5 million miles of America’s pipelines suffer hundreds of leaks and ruptures every year, costing lives, money and negatively impacting our environment. As existing lines grow older, critics warn that the risk of accidents on those lines will only increase and new construction will increase as well.
Data shows that while train and truck accidents involving oil transportation might occur more often, pipeline breaks spill more oil and generally cause more damage to the environment by fouling groundwater and wilderness areas.
And while a slew of federal and state agencies oversee some aspect of America’s pipelines, the bulk of government monitoring and enforcement falls to a small agency within the Department of Transportation called the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration – pronounced “FIM-sa” by insiders. The agency only requires that seven percent of natural gas lines and 44 percent of all hazardous liquid lines be subject to their rigorous inspection criteria and inspected regularly.
And even when they do conduct rigorous environmental studies, governmental agencies run the risk of being ignored. There have also been multiple times that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns companies about potential dangers to the environment from pipeline construction, but their warnings go unheeded and construction begins anyways. In fact, in North Dakota, the EPA and two other federal agencies warned the Army Corps of Engineers against building the pipeline, but they were ignored. A similar situation occurred in Kentucky and upstate New York as well, leading to well attended protests.
These are some of the environmental concerns critics of oil pipelines have:
1. Destruction of wetlands: Construction of pipelines often disturbs wetland functions, especially to the vegetation and soil which many forms of wildlife rely on for survival. Many times wetlands disappear completely because they are replaced with “fill” from the construction sites.
2. Impact on threatened or endangered species: Woodlands, wetlands and water sources are often directly impacted by pipeline construction and displace or harm the threatened or endangered species living in the area. Impacts can result from loss of habitat; habitat fragmentation; mortality due to construction and operation, stress or avoidance, increased susceptibility to predation, loss of food resources and loss of breeding habitats.
3. Climate and environmental risks: If we’re serious about ending climate change, new studies have shown that we need to completely stop expanding the fossil fuel frontier. Building these pipelines does the complete opposite and only increases our reliance on nonrenewable resources instead of funding new forms of energy production. Our only hope is a swift, managed decline in the production of all carbon-based energy from the fields we’ve already put in production.