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It is amazing the difference that four years can make in environmental policy. On January 24, 2017, at the outset of his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order that salvaged the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from the Obama administration’s planned obstructionism. Obama had sought to upset the string of administrative approvals that the project obtained at both the federal and state levels. DAPL runs about 1,100 miles from the Bakken and Three Forks oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, where it is able to carry, far below ground, about 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Trump’s action allowed Congress to vote on whether to grant the last federal easement needed for the pipeline to proceed.
DAPL is now in service, even as litigation to shut it down continues. Environmental groups continue to allege attenuated theories of adverse effects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Their efforts are consistent with the common practice among environmentalists of paying inordinate attention to highly remote contingencies while completely ignoring the large and immediate safety and efficiency advantages of getting crude oil to both domestic and foreign markets via DAPL. More concretely, the chances that any crude oil shipped by DAPL will escape in sufficient quantities to damage the fishing or water rights of the Standing Rock Sioux have always been infinitesimal, which is why the pipeline operations have caused no such harm for the past three years. The overall soundness of the pipeline grid will become truly dire if DAPL is shut down while Keystone is left incomplete.
For the moment, however, the immediate threat is to the Keystone pipeline. On January 20, President Biden issued an executive order aimed at “Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” One component of his major order was to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline started some twelve years ago, but since that time it has been beset with legal challenges, including one in May 2020 in which a Montana judge yanked the pipeline’s permit on the grounds that the Army Corps of Engineers had not consulted sufficiently with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the alleged risks that the pipeline posed to endangered species and their habitat. Such orders overlook the benefits from that pipeline, which include its ability to ship up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Alberta sands to American refineries along the Gulf Coast.