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Dakota Access oil pipeline's growth rekindles opposition

Environmentalists object and Iowa regulators seek more data on company's plans to expand

A Dakota Access pipeline valve sits in a cornfield in Mount Sterling, Ill., as the sun rises Dec. 12. Owners of the pipe
A Dakota Access pipeline valve sits in a cornfield in Mount Sterling, Ill., as the sun rises Dec. 12. Owners of the pipeline that runs from North Dakota to Illinois — including 18 counties in Iowa — are seeking to nearly double its daily flow of crude oil. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
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Oil has been flowing through the underground Dakota Access pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois since the summer of 2017.

Every day, an average of 560,000 barrels flows through the pipeline. Now the company that owns the pipeline wants to nearly double the volume, pumping up to 1.1 million barrels from the oil-rich Bakken region through South Dakota and Iowa into a distribution hub in Illinois.

To increase the flow, the company wants to build a series of new pump stations along the 1,172-mile route and upgrade its facilities where Dakota Access links up with other pipelines.

In Iowa, the company wants to bolster a pumping station on land it owns in Cambridge, south of Ames. It is seeking more extensive upgrades in other states, including Illinois. There, it’s asking to build a new pump station north of Quincy, and to replace and add pumps at the oil tank complex in Patoka, about 80 miles east of St. Louis, where the Dakota Access route ends.

But its petitions this time are running into resistance from some regulators, and rekindling the emotional battle that environmentalists, Native Americans and some politicians lost the last time — a fierce opposition of sit-ins, vandalism, arrests and court fights that played out under a worldwide glare.

Although the owners see the upgrades needed in Iowa as only limited, the Iowa Utilities Board has pumped the brakes on them. In September, the board issued an order requiring Dakota Access to file a petition for an amendment to its original permit.

The Iowa board, in a 13-page ruling, is requiring the company to provide a bevy of new information before it will consider the request.

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Specifically, Iowa regulators asked the company to address whether increased flow will increase the amount of oil that would be released in a spill, and how an additive used to help with more flow will affect the longevity of the pipes.

In the ruling, the Iowa board noted it initially approved a pipeline that would handle a much smaller capacity.

“New facilities in (Illinois and North Dakota) would not be necessary if the Dakota Access pipeline was proposed and originally constructed as a pipeline that could transport up to 1,100,000 barrels of crude oil per day,” the Iowa board members wrote.

They concluded: “Since Dakota Access must build additional facilities in other states and modify the pumping station in Cambridge, Iowa, to transport the increased flow of oil, it is evident the existing pipeline was not designed, constructed, or approved to carry 1,100,000 barrels per day.”

Environmental groups object to increased oil flow

The Dakota Access pipeline and the Energy Transfer Crude Oil pipeline, which delivers oil from it to the Gulf Coast, are collectively referred to as the Bakken pipeline, a joint venture between Energy Transfer, MarEn Bakken Co. and Phillips 66.

Since summer, the pipeline company and environmental groups have been locked in legal wrangling with no immediate end in sight.

The environmental groups are pushing for more information on why the increased oil flow is needed and objecting to the risks.

In Iowa, at least two dozen objections have been filed with regulators, including one from the state Justice Department’s Office of Consumer Advocate pushing back against the company’s request that the utilities board waive a public hearing.

“At a minimum, some type of notice needs to be provided to interested parties so the Board will have the information necessary to meet the clear and convincing standard prior to waiving the hearing,” the consumer advocate wrote.

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The pipeline passes through 18 counties in Iowa, a rural route cutting diagonally from northwest to southeast.

The pipeline owner is fighting the Iowa board’s stance, and highlighting the economic benefits of the project throughout the region.

“The optimization of the pipeline will help allow for further development in the Bakken, economic growth in North Dakota, and the stabilization of costs for the industry and consumers,” Lisa Coleman, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer, said in an emailed response to questions. “Constructing pump stations is a safe and standard industry practice. The maximum operation pressure (MOP) for which the pipeline was designed, tested and permitted will not change. ...

“We constructed the Dakota Access pipeline using all of the latest pipeline technology, and exceeded many regulatory requirements with additional safeguards.”

Dakota Access cites increased oil production, demand

Dakota Access, in a June filing with the Illinois Commerce Commission, detailed its desires to increase pipeline volume and upgrade pumping infrastructure along the route. The simple reason for the changes, it says: increased production and demand.

The Williston Basin in North Dakota, which includes the Bakken region, is producing about 1.4 million barrels per day, up 29 percent from when the Dakota Access pipeline began operating in June 2017, according to a company filing.

The company forecasts production will keep increasing over the next five years because of advances in “recovery and drilling technology.”

An increased flow, the company said, will not increase the risk of spills or leaks or increase the danger to those who live near the route.

“Our plan to optimize the pipeline’s capacity is well within the design parameters of the current system,” Coleman wrote. “The additional pumps and the enhanced safety controls along the route, i.e., surge tanks, will not change the risk profile of the pipeline or the maximum operating pressure. The Dakota Access pipeline will continue to operate safely at the optimized capacity.”

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The company also noted that the pipeline’s Operations Control Center in Houston monitors the pressure, temperature, density and flow of oil throughout the pipeline around the clock.

The staff at the control center can remotely shut emergency valves or deploy field personnel to manually shut down the pipeline, Coleman said.

In North Dakota, where indigenous people and environmentalists clashed with authorities during 2016 protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a mid-November public meeting drew dozens to the microphone and lasted for over 15 hours. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe again is intervening.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission plans to hold a series of meetings before deciding on the project.

In South Dakota, the company does not need state approval because wording in the 2014 petition to construct the pipeline does not cap the amount of oil. There, the inclusion of the words “or more” means the company needs only to receive approval at the county level for plans to build one new pump station along the route, according to Leah Mohr, deputy executive director of the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

An Iowa public hearing — if there will be one — hasn’t seen set.

A decision in Illinois will not be made until after the new year. The next hearings are set for Feb. 10 and 11 in Chicago.

Pipelines ‘are the safest ways to transport oil’

However, an Illinois Commerce Commission staffer assigned to the case has recommended the commission approve the plans there for new pumping stations and facilities for additional capacity.

“I continue to recommend that the commission find that the planned additional pumping stations are necessary and will provide the security and convenience of the public in Illinois,” he testified.

Khalid Aziz, an energy resources engineering professor emeritus at Stanford University, said he does not see any peril in the company’s push to deliver more oil through the pipeline. The company should know the maximum pressure the pipeline can handle, he said, based on the pipeline’s steel and thickness, and “is not going to increase the pressure beyond the safety standards that are established.”

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Aziz stressed that pipelines “are the safest ways to transport oil” — much safer, he said, than by rail cars.

“I get really upset when people object to pipelines when oil is still being transported by rail,” Aziz said.

But Bill Klingele, a retired engineer who lives in Joliet and owns 385 acres near the pipeline along with his two sisters, said he’s not convinced by the company’s arguments that increased flow will be safe, or by the argument that pipelines are better than other forms of transport.

“Statistics are great until oil is coming up in your land, your soil,” Klingele said in an interview. “Then statistics don’t mean anything.”

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