Get Politics Out of Okaying Pipelines

Get Politics Out of Okaying Pipelines
Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File

President Trump reversed an Obama-era executive order that Trump believes wrongfully slows pipeline permitting and other infrastructure projects. You'd be excused for feeling some whiplash between regulatory regimes, but we all ought to get used to it. When political figures are at the wheel they'll always set a course favoring their friends.

While independent agencies aren't immune from influence from interest groups at least they're not inherently political positions. Partisan officials are likely to harbor a non-scientific bias when evaluating proposals. Environmentalists see such changes as a political favor to fossil fuel interests, but removing politics from what should be a scientific and technical process isn't just politics, it's good sense.

Instead of worrying over the president's role in the permitting process, we should be looking for ways to make the pipeline permitting process more scientific and less political.

The president's role in permitting pipelines has become too politicized to be useful. President Obama blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline just before leaving office, a decision President Trump promptly reversed. This back-and-forth illustrates that policy is being driven by politics and not evidence-based analysis. Whether you're a fan of Obama or Trump, giving a political figure control over what should be an impartial process introduces partisanship where there should be only scientific study.

The pipeline permitting process is designed to be research-based and objective, but interest groups have still found ways to abuse it. Environmental impact statements (EIS) are meant to provide information to policymakers to determine if an action, like building a pipeline, is worthwhile. They document and justify any possible environmental impacts that may occur. But these statements often become unreadable because of pressure from activists to cover every minute detail and foresee every possible consequence of a proposed project. An EIS can run hundreds of pages and must sometimes be printed in multiple volumes because developers so fear being sued. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) required only an environmental assessment, which is essentially a short version of an EIS, but it was still over 130 pages long.

The book Nature Unbound, authored by two Utah State University professors, argues that even though ample resources are poured into writing and researching these documents, a litigation-proof EIS is impossible. Interest groups can always find something to sue over to tie up the development in court. Even with the lengthy report prepared for DAPL, a federal judge ruled earlier this month that despite getting most parts of their Environmental Assessment right they must reexamine several areas of their analysis. This re-examination of DAPL is predicted to require months of additional work and the judge is still considering whether or not to allow the pipeline to stay open during that time.

Yet, studying the environmental impact of pipelines and other similar projects is necessary. Oil spills harm the environment and an effective review process can help prevent them. There's a balancing act to be struck between hearing legitimate complaints and worries from those who would be affected and weeding out the extreme and politically motivated activists who want to prevent any fossil fuel use via “keep it in the ground” campaigns. Prominent and politicized figures, like the president, are ill-equipped to strike such a balance.

Presidents and Congress need to play a role in setting rules, but not applying them. When political figures both write and enforce the law there is extensive latitude for abuse and favoritism in how laws are enforced. Bureaucrats won't be perfect since they are still likely subject to influence from interest groups, but they're at least better than the current system that allows complete reversals in policy like DAPL's experience with presidential permits.

Freeing permitting from politics is vital in part because pipelines bring environmental benefits along with their costs. According to a Canadian public policy organization, the Fraser Institute, pipelines spill 4.5 times less often than rail once the amount of oil transported is accounted for. When pipelines do spill, much of the oil can be recovered and most spills happen within facilities where additional safety and containment mechanisms are common. It's important to remember that without pipelines, most of that oil will still be moved since people won't stop using plastics or filling up their cars, but by methods that aren't as environmentally safe.

Politicized figures like the president shouldn't be involved in scientific and technical decisions. The newly appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission officials ought to avoid merely rubber stamping pipeline approvals, but instead be cautious and scientific in their analysis of the ones that are worthwhile and safe. Permitting for projects like pipelines should be straightforward and simple, yet still stringent in what is required. Permitting through an independent agency is more likely to provide environmental protection than the current system of relying on outright partisan officials.

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