Pipeline Shutdown Could Hurt Low-Income Americans

Pipeline Shutdown Could Hurt Low-Income Americans
Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP
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U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg’s recent decision to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is the latest act in the drama surrounding the beleaguered pipeline. Despite acknowledging the “disruption” this would cause, the judge nevertheless ordered DAPL to be shut down and emptied of oil by early August so that federal regulators can conduct further analysis on the already operational infrastructure. While environmentalists are cheering the decision handed down in a Washington, D.C. courtroom, the millions of Americans who depend on affordable and reliable energy may not be in such a celebratory mood.

Judge Boasberg’s ruling may have been focused on a single pipeline, but the broader repercussions extend to the oil and gas industry’s ability to safely and affordably transport essential energy resources throughout the nation. Thankfully, the appeals court in Washington D.C. this week issued a temporary administrative stay allowing the pipeline to remain operational beyond Boasberg’s August 5 deadline until they make a final ruling on the appeal. But as the economy is now waking from its coronavirus-induced slumber with a need for energy, the last thing we need is a significant, and unnecessary, disruption in what is undoubtedly the best mode for transporting fuel.

Many of those celebrating Boasberg’s decision are doing so based on an anti-fossil fuel ideology, but the reality is that their desire for a complete transformation to 100% renewable energy is years – if not decades – away. In the meantime, the nation needs traditional energy resources to power homes, businesses, and the economy. And in their fevered quest to shut down not just DAPL, but other pipelines, environmental activists are also undermining their own mission by shutting down the safest and most environmentally-conscious way to move those resources. The closing of DAPL doesn’t eliminate the demand for energy or the need for transporting crude oil, it simply means alternative, and less safe means, must be utilized.

Pipelines are the safest and most efficient way of transporting fuels, especially when the pipeline has a proven record like DAPL. Compared to other modes of transportation, pipelines have lower spill risks and less associated pollution. As the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers points out in their brief, the highest risk of pipeline spillage is during commission and decommission. The order itself, with decommission being an unfortunate yet conceivable outcome, increases the risk of a negative environmental impact. Since, the need for transportation will not go away, it will need to be transported via other methods, likely by rail or truck, each of which carry greater risk. In fact, one study found pipelines to be 4.5 times safer than transport by train. The alternatives also incur other environmental related costs, as air pollution and greenhouse gas costs of rail transportation are double those of pipelines.

Pipelines are also the most affordable method of transporting fuel. The Congressional Research Service estimates that transporting crude by rail is two to three times as expensive as transport by pipeline. That increased cost is inevitably passed along to the consumer who bears the brunt of higher energy prices – an added burden millions of families can ill-afford to shoulder in the current COVID-19 economy. In the broader discussion about energy, we cannot forget the struggle of low-income Americans in paying their energy bills. The bottom 20% of earners spend nearly 10% of their income on electricity – a basic necessity in modern life. Further, energy poverty and increased energy costs disproportionately impact minority communities, as 50% of all families that spend 10% of their income on electricity are African-American.  DAPL is confined to one geographic region, but the rest of the nation will certainly feel the economic ripples of its closure. 

At the end of the day, environmental concerns should be carefully considered in any infrastructure project. But that is exactly what took place with DAPL in its multi-year permitting and approval process overseen by the Army Corps and state regulators, and subsequent additional court-ordered review. When will it be enough? These type of rulings are already taking their toll on American energy. Just this past week, the developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline abandoned the project after years of legal challenges and regulatory red tape. There has become just too much uncertainty for large-scale energy infrastructure development – and American consumers will ultimately have to pay the price.


Albert Wynn is a former Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, having served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He currently acts as a strategic adviser to the Grow America’s Infrastructure Now (GAIN) Coalition and is senior director at Greenberg Traurig.


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