Energy expert on Bakken pipeline approval: ‘Pick your poison’

Williston, North Dakota pipes -- photo by Lindsey G
Williston, North Dakota pipes — photo by Lindsey G

Last week, the Iowa Utilities Board unanimously approved the Bakken oil pipeline, which will cut across 18 counties in the state. Lawsuits from the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club and a farmers group are expected to challenge the IUB ruling and block the pipeline.

Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners in Texas and charged with obtaining land access for the pipeline, also announced it had signatures from about 90 percent of the landowners along the entire 1,100-mile pipeline that will traverse four states: Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Illinois.

The many remaining landowners will likely be subject to eminent domain deals granted to Dakota Access. They will be paid market value for the easements across their land — but not voluntarily.

Iowa lags behind the three other states, both in approving the deal and in gaining approval from landowners, with just 82 percent of Iowa property owners on board. The holdouts amount to some 300 parcels of land out of over 1,000.

Eminent domain and pipelines have become political footballs in the Republican presidential race with frontrunners Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz trashing Donald Trump on his use of eminent domain as a developer. All of the Republican candidates support the Keystone XL pipeline.

Dakota Access said that 97 percent of the relevant properties in North Dakota, 93 percent in South Dakota and 92 percent in Illinois signed up to accommodate a 30-inch diameter pipeline that carries up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota every day to an Illinois refinery.

That oil is preferable to the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, according to Tyler Priest, an oil and gas technology historian. Priest is a professor in the University of Iowa’s History and Geography departments and has written books about oil spills and articles on gas extraction technologies.

In a phone interview, Priest said Bakken’s nearly 350 miles of pipeline “is not going to add a lot more risk” for Iowa, but “for individual landowners that’s a different question.”

Iowa has about 40,000 miles of (mostly natural gas) pipeline already. Priest said that by volume, pipelines are safer for moving oil than by rail or truck, so he supported the Bakken pipeline. He noted, “I prefer natural gas over coal. It burns less CO2.”

Priest also prefers Bakken lighter crude oil to Keystone’s dirtier oil sands pumped from Canada and said the distinction between Bakken and Keystone oil was usually glossed over. “Bakken oil is a lot more preferable to the [Keystone] oil sands,” he said, likening Bakken product to gasoline, which evaporates quickly. “It wouldn’t be nearly as bad as a leak from the Keystone XL.”

Keystone oil (or bituminous) sands are “really heavy,” Priest said. “It doesn’t float in water. It has to be upgraded to a liquid” to pump it because of its thick, sludgy state when extracted. “If there’s a spill with it [oil sands], it’s harder to clean up,” he said, adding, “You can never guarantee that there wouldn’t be a leak.”

“For me, I would prefer to get oil from the Bakken than from Nigeria or Equatorial Guinea or Saudi Arabia or Venezuela … It’s almost kind of pick your poison when it comes down to it,” Priest said.

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“At least in the short to medium term, natural gas is a good strategy,” he said. “It would be great if we could stop using oil and gas, but fossil fuels account for about 85 percent of primary energy consumption on a world-wide basis. Even reducing that by 10 percent is a huge, tall order, so it’s not like we’re going to stop using oil and gas anytime soon.”

Priest said that growing awareness of climate change, ethanol development and the Keystone XL pipeline “primed” Iowa’s resistance to Bakken, and also that the political climate is very different from the last time a natural gas pipeline was built across Iowa, over 15 years ago. “There’s a real solid alliance in this state between farmers and environmentalists when it comes to the [Bakken] pipeline. It’s an unusual alliance. They’re usually against each other.”

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