Completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline is expected to fundamentally change the direction of North Dakota oil.
The "interstate highway" for Bakken crude will take barrels off the rail cars headed east-west and take them south to refineries on the Gulf Coast, where experts expect oil producers will find higher prices and lower transportation costs.
"It is going to certainly shake up the existing transportation modes," said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.
The $3.8 billion, four-state oil pipeline will connect the state's oil fields to a pipeline in Illinois that leads to refineries in Texas. It could ultimately carry up to 570,000 barrels a day. For months, construction stalled as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies filed legal challenges and protested in southern Morton County, expressing concerns that a leak may contaminate the tribe's water supply.
The change may lead to some long-term growth in oil production here, because investors may have more confidence in the prices the oil can fetch, Ness said. It's also expected to bring in more than $100 million yearly in taxes for the state.
The company says the pipeline is committed for 470,000 barrels a day, which is about half of the daily production from the Bakken. That's got to come from somewhere, said Trisha Curtis, co-founder of Petro-Nerds, an energy analytics and advising firm from Denver.
"When you add all that up, the only place you can pull that from is rail," Curtis said.
Some oil will continue moving by train, because there will still be demand from refineries in Philadelphia, New Jersey and the Pacific Northwest.
"Crude by rail really gets the product to some refineries that are not reachable by pipeline," said Julie Fedorchak, North Dakota public service commissioner.
But already rail proponents are bemoaning the loss of business.
John Risch, national legislative director of the SMART transportation division, said the downturn in oil and coal shipments by rail may affect BNSF's ability to continue investing in the rail services that are critical to agricultural producers.
"All of the sudden, who’s going to pay for all this infrastructure?" Risch asked.
With Dakota Access, experts say the state has fulfilled the main infrastructure needs that were pressing in the early days of the oil boom. There are two outstanding pipeline projects that would affect North Dakota. These are the Keystone XL and the Transcanada Uplander, which would carry oil from the Bakken to a pipeline leading to eastern Canada. Also, there continues to be a need for gas plants, and an oil refinery in Belfield is being permitted.
Whether the months of tribal and environmental protests against Dakota Access will affect these projects in the state is unknown, and experts have mixed opinions about whether protesting could discourage companies from building oil infrastructure here.
"There were a lot of very unique circumstances that made this the perfect storm," Ness said of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. "I don’t think it would stop somebody from planning a project."
But Fedorchak suggested it might have a "chilling effect" on companies that might want to make less risky investments.
"It’s another big X factor that could make people choose to invest their money elsewhere," she said.
The protests should be a wake-up call for regulators around the country to take public input and establish a strong record on the front-end in case of opposition, according to Fedorchak.
"The reality is we have to have these infrastructure projects .... our economy, safety, quality of life depends on them," she said. "We need to remain committed to following these things according to law."
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