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There are many environmental problems with fossil fuels (climate change being the most obvious), but specifically regarding water pollution, how big of a threat to local water supplies is the Dakota Access Pipeline?

From what I've found online, most of the arguments in favor of the pipeline come from biased sources, but these points stood out to me:

  1. There's already a natural gas pipeline along the same route

    Before reading this report I had no idea there was another pipeline already running through this area, but there is. It’s called the Northern Border Pipeline. It’s a natural gas line built all the way back in 1982, and the Dakota Access Pipeline follows it often, including through the areas currently being disputed by protesters.

Is the existing Northern Border Pipeline (which is natural gas as opposed to DAPL's crude oil) a comparable environmental hazard, or is DAPL provably more risky?

  1. According to the company building the pipeline, "underground pipelines are the safest mode of transporting crude oil".

This claim is rather vague, as safety could refer to a lot of things. Is DAPL less likely to cause environmental damage than existing oil transport methods in the area?

  • What is the claimed damage? – Sklivvz Nov 26 '16 at 9:03
  • Mainly the risk of water contamination – csstudent Nov 26 '16 at 17:43
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Is the existing Northern Border Pipeline (which is natural gas as opposed to DAPL's crude oil) a comparable environmental hazard, or is DAPL provably more risky?

Natural gas and crude oil spills really aren't comparable, especially in terms of environmental hazard.

A natural gas spill mainly evaporates into methane gas and dissipates. Wikipedia describes this process as follows:

LNG is normally stored and transported in liquid form at a temperature of approximately −161 °C (−258 °F). If this cooled liquid is released from a storage facility, pipeline, or LNG transport ship, then it begins to warm. As LNG warms above its storage temperature, the liquid begins to vaporize. The resulting gas produced by this warming is typically methane, which is the major component (with some ethane) of natural gas.

LNG spill

So long as the gas does not ignite, and people don't suffocate from the gas, it just dissipates into the atmosphere. Of course, methane is a greenhouse gas which would still impact global warming to some extent, but let us not get side-tracked.

On the other hand, crude oil spills are messy and do not dissipate so-readily. They tend to cause lasting environmental problems and require expensive cleanups that aren't completely effective.

I think it's worth mentioning, even if the risks of environmental damage by a spill were comparable, doubling the number of pipes would effectively double that risk for that area, which by itself would still be problematic.




This claim is rather vague, as safety could refer to a lot of things. Is DAPL less likely to cause environmental damage than existing oil transport methods in the area?

I suppose this claim depends on how you define "safety". If we define it as "amount of oil spilled", which seems the most-relevant to the environmental concerns, then the statistics may not back this claim.

A December 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service on this issues contains the following bar-chart.

bar graph

Assuming that the most-recent stats are still roughly accurate, then pipelines spill a smaller percentage than tanker trucks, but more than both railroads and tanker ships combined.

One small caveat that I think should be addressed here is that they specifically say "underground pipelines", but this chart does not differentiate. However if we take one industry website's word, most pipelines are actually underground.

Most crude oil pipelines are underground, except for pump stations and valves.

How the different transportation methods specifically impact this one area is perhaps a little less-clear, aside from the obvious difference of not having a crude oil pipeline crossing the river. A similar earlier plan involved crossing the Missouri River north of Bismarck was rejected at least in-part due to protest and concern for water safety there.

  • Furthermore, it may be important to note, that Wikipedia states (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_transport#Pollution_concerns) that the vast majority of spills occur on either end of the transportation. Is this taken into consideration in this graph (is loading/unloading considered part of transportation)? It would seem most likely that a permanent static pipeline, since their is not a loading/unloaded phrase would skip this most dangerous operation and be much saver in that regard. – Jonathon Nov 26 '16 at 15:05
  • 2
    @JonathonWisnoski That Wikipedia article is poorly cited, and that particular claim lacks citation, but assuming it's true it seems to apply to all forms of petrol transportation and not just pipelines. I think it's too vague to draw a conclusion on pipeline safety in transport, too many unknowns. For example, trucking alone could tip the scale. – Alexander O'Mara Nov 26 '16 at 17:49
  • One thing bothers me with the chart in that context. It makes transport by pipeline appear safer than by truck. But this is only true if the amount of oil transported doesn't change. If trucks already move half a million tons per day through that area and they build the pipeline that can move the same amount, then the latter would be safer. But if trucks only move, let's say, 1/10 of that, then the pipeline spills more oil on average because it carries 10 times more. – daraos Nov 27 '16 at 13:46
  • Probably, many/most of pipeline protesters want to transport the oil neither by pipeline nor by rail, but leave it in the ground and focus development on sustainable energy sources instead. – gerrit Nov 29 '16 at 14:22
  • This may not follow your guidelines but you, quoting Wiki, are confusing LNG transportation with natural gas transportation. LNG is not transported via "cross country" pipelines. Natural gas, in it's gaseous form, is transported by that method at +-1,000 PSI to the distribution points, and is regularly scrubbed to remove any condensation. LNG is transported via vessels and is also stored in that form. There is no such thing as a natural gas spill but rather a pipeline rupture with natural gas escaping. From Wiki..." This makes LNG cost efficient to transport over long distances where pipelines – Paul Bud Nov 29 '16 at 20:21

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