At the heart of Wednesday’s hearing over the proposed expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline is this question: Should regulators take a narrow focus on a pump station planned for Emmons County, or should they consider broader risks that arise from moving nearly double the current amount of oil through the line?
Pipeline operator Energy Transfer is pushing for the former as it seeks to increase the capacity of the pipeline from 570,000 barrels per day to 1.1 million. The company plans to add more horsepower along the line by installing a pump station 5 miles west of Linton and making upgrades in the other states where the pipeline operates.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe also will have a seat at the table, having intervened in the case before the North Dakota Public Service Commission. It’s concerned more oil moving through the line will increase the risk and damage of a leak, and it wants regulators to deny the pipeline operator’s application.
The tribe has long opposed the pipeline, and its reservation sits less than a half-mile from where the pipeline crosses under the Missouri River.
The fight over the proposed expansion will play out in what’s expected to be a lengthy hearing drawing a large crowd of tribal members, activists and oil industry supporters to the auditorium of the Emmons County Courthouse. The PSC, a three-member panel tasked with regulating major oil pipelines, will convene there Wednesday morning.
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said an administrative law judge will run the hearing and make an effort to keep comments focused on the topic of the pipeline expansion. She said the event is not meant as a venue to air broad concerns about the oil industry, pipelines or climate change.
“But if you have concerns about what the company is proposing on this or what the company’s emergency response plans are, all those sorts of things, yes, we will be talking about those issues,” she said.
Energy Transfer’s expansion plan
As oil production climbs in the Bakken, so does the demand for space on pipelines.
Oil companies pump nearly 1.5 million barrels of oil out of the ground each day in North Dakota, while existing pipelines in the state can transport only 1.3 million barrels per day.
“Adding pumping capacity will allow Dakota Access to meet the growing demand from shippers by optimizing and fully utilizing the existing pipeline infrastructure, without the need to install new pipelines,” Jeff Makholm, managing director of National Economic Research Associates, said in written testimony supporting Energy Transfer.
The pump station Energy Transfer is planning for Emmons County would contain five 6,000-horsepower electrically driven motors and pumps inside a building. The facility would span 21 acres and extend beyond the existing footprint of the pipeline approved by the PSC in 2016, triggering the need for amendments to its permits. It would cost up to $40 million.
In a brief filed Friday, the company said the pump station “will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and the welfare of the citizens of North Dakota,” which is one of the key criteria the PSC intends to consider.
Standing Rock’s concerns
Standing Rock contends the expansion “will increase both the likelihood and the severity of spill incidents,” and says in its brief that the company has failed to provide the commission with “critical information necessary to properly evaluate the magnitude of those increased risks and what, if any, measures might be necessary to mitigate them.”
One issue the tribe intends to raise is the phenomena of “surge.” Surge describes a sudden shift in pressure in a pipeline triggered by a significant change in flow, according to Richard Kuprewicz, president of pipeline safety consulting firm Accufacts. Too high of a pressure can cause pipelines to burst, and the increased speed of oil flowing through Dakota Access would increase the risk, he said in written testimony.
Kuprewicz noted that Energy Transfer has filed a surge analysis with regulators in Illinois that examines the pressure of the pipeline under expansion, but the report is not publicly available.
The tribe also plans to argue that by doubling the amount of oil through the line, “the potential ‘worst case’ spill event is far more serious than today -- another risk that has never been examined or prepared for.” And Standing Rock contends that Energy Transfer has a poor track record of safety on its pipelines throughout the country.
"Tribal members live every day under the risk of an oil spill that would harm the waters that sustain our people, our economy, and our spiritual lives," Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Jon Eagle said in written testimony.
Standing Rock is asking the PSC to require Energy Transfer to submit substantial information about the pressure of the pipeline and the risk of spills under the expansion. That includes the surge analysis filed in Illinois.
The company’s take
Energy Transfer says the tribe’s testimony, so far, is not relevant to the PSC’s decision. Energy Transfer filed a formal motion on Friday to strike it.
“Rather than address the question before the Commission -- whether to authorize a new pump station in Emmons County -- the testimony seeks to expand the scope of this hearing to issues that are not properly before the Commission,” the company said in its motion.
Energy Transfer added that the issues surrounding pipeline safety and spill risk that Standing Rock raises are regulated by the federal government and fall outside the PSC’s jurisdiction. Some matters brought up by the tribe are already part of the ongoing lawsuit Standing Rock filed against the federal government in 2016 over its permitting decisions, the company said.
Standing Rock counters that the issues it raises are relevant to the PSC, and that Energy Transfer has not provided the information the tribe is asking for.
“Instead of doing that, they move to strike the testimony of these experts and silence the tribe,” said Tim Purdon, an attorney representing Standing Rock.
Energy Transfer maintains that the line, once expanded, would continue to run under its existing maximum allowable operating pressure.
Todd Stamm, vice president of liquid pipeline operations for Energy Transfer, wrote in testimony that the company would update its emergency response plan filed with the federal government once the line is expanded. He said Energy Transfer also would coordinate with local emergency responders along the pipeline route and provide training, if necessary.
Landowners, activists, oil industry watch closely
After Energy Transfer and Standing Rock make their case at the hearing, members of the public can share their thoughts with the PSC in front of an open mic.
Two Emmons County landowners who live near the pipeline, Donna and Charles Kurszewski, are eager to make their voices heard after the administrative law judge denied their petition to intervene, saying it merely posed questions about the pipeline and did not state the position and interest of the family.
When crews were completing trenching work on the pipeline during its construction in 2016, Donna Kurszewski noticed several places near the proposed pump station site where the direction of the line changes, including a sharp angle just to the south.
She said in an interview she’s concerned that if oil flows through, “eventually that could corrode the pipeline and burst it exactly where Beaver Creek is.” Beaver Creek is a tributary of the Missouri River.
Charles Kurszewski said he and Donna have not seen a thorough spill response plan for a leak occurring in Emmons County, and they want to ensure safety measures are in place.
“I think Donna and I feel it is at least our job and duty to put our questions up and publicize it, rather than allow it to go under the carpet,” he said.
Activists from the Lakota People’s Law Project and tribal leaders across the Dakotas are calling on supporters who have stood with Standing Rock against the pipeline in the past to make their opposition to the expansion known through comments and attendance at the hearing.
The oil industry and pipeline advocates also are rallying.
At a press conference Monday, Geoff Simon, executive director of the Western Dakota Energy Association, said the expansion would mean more local property taxes and more tax revenue circling back to the oil patch to pay for infrastructure needs and services such as schools, law enforcement and fire protection.
North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said pipeline developers typically don’t build a project with an expansion of this scope in mind. Unlike Energy Transfer, they go back to the drawing board when they max out the capacity of their pipelines and plan an entirely new line.
“That is completely out-of-the-box thinking for any pipeline company,” he said.