Environmental Fears over DAPL Overblown

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is more than just a pipeline. It is a political hot potato. There are a lot of issues underlying the DAPL conversation, including indigenous peoples’ access to ancestral lands, environmental concerns of a potential spill, water rights, and social justice.

One false assumption is that rejecting the DAPL would result in fossil fuels staying in the ground. The lack of a pipeline has not stopped growth in oil production from the Bakken shale formation yet. This oil is currently transported by rail or road, where it has a significantly higher chance of spillage, explosion or tragedy. Higher prices will be passed on to consumers, a regressive policy that inordinately affects the poorest citizens.

Climate change activists have also entered the fray. Anti-fossil fuels advocate Bill McKibben said the pipeline couldn’t pass “a climate test” and the Center for Biological Diversity has made DAPL a touchstone of its aggressive climate campaign. Wouldn’t it be great to see the numbers behind the rhetoric?

The environment is important, but not as important to environmentalists as a large coalition.

There are several calculators that use the EPA’s own model — the Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse Gas-Induced Climate Change (MAGICC) — to determine the effects of various policy proposals. The model requires we know how much additional oil DAPL will transmit, which is rather difficult to predict. The pipeline’s capacity is currently rated at 470,000 barrels per day from the Bakken shale formation. This is about half of the Bakken’s current production.

Moving this oil by pipeline is about $7/barrel cheaper than current transport by truck and rail. For the sake of argument, assume that an additional 470,000 barrels come out of the Bakken as a result of the pipeline. (Note: In reality, production changes are determined by a host of unrelated market conditions).

Plugging that figure into the MAGICC model will tell you how much that oil will raise global temperatures by the year 2100 — just 0.006 degrees Celsius. A rise of 0.006°C is roughly the temperature change we experience every few seconds, even in a thermostatically controlled environment.

It’s also too small to measure on a global scale. In addition, the MAGICC model assumes, along with the EPA, the “sensitivity” of global surface temperature to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide is around 3.0°C. There are dozens of reality-based experiments in the recent peer-reviewed literature showing that assumption to be a serious overestimate.

A large reason for the prominence of the #NoDAPL movement is due to a concerted effort by environmental groups to include minorities and the economically disadvantaged in their association. By melding environmentalism and social justice into “environmental justice,” environmentalists are able to swell their ranks.

They have incorporated issues plaguing minority groups, like systematic racism and poverty, with the specter of apocalyptic climate change. These priorities were on full display in the November defeat of Initiative 732 in Washington — a carbon tax many environmentalists rallied against due to its lack of wealth redistribution. The environment is important, but not as important to environmentalists as a large coalition.

We should note that, come January 20th, Donald Trump will be president. The Army Corps of Engineers’ process will find itself under the guidance of a new executive — one boisterously behind domestic energy production. We find it difficult to believe President Trump won’t address the DAPL.

Trump has publicly voiced his support for the project. This reroute of the project will merely delay the inevitable — oil flowing from the Bakken shale to consumers with no detectable effect on earth’s climate.

Patrick J. Michaels is the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.