Last fall I attended a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which was being constructed near my town of Ames, Iowa. Invited by a friend who said she planned on being arrested, I was expecting the protest to focus on eminent domain, since that’s what all the headlines and protest signs had been about. But when I got there, I saw everyone protesting the threat that the pipeline posed to water, and how the project would contribute to climate change. As I watched friends getting arrested in nonviolent demonstrations, I was confused and full of questions.
Did this pipeline really pose a threat to land and water, as they claimed? Even if it did, why focus on a pipeline when farmers cause massive pollution and soil erosion? Why are these people protesting the production of oil, I wondered, when they drove to their protest in cars? And in any case, in the end, would such protests really prevent more oil from being burned? Aren’t there more productive ways to fight climate change?
Given that my friends are well informed, I began digging for the deeper story behind the protest signs. I looked up the pipeline and found that there was no detailed map of it. Being a mapmaker, I found that unacceptable, so I had one made. I work with MapStory.org, a crowd-sourced mapping website in development, and I figured this would be a great example of something that people could collaborate on.
My initial assumption was that pipeline accidents are rare, but as I investigated, I found that they happen all the time. In the past 30 years there have been more than 8,700 liquid pipeline spills, averaging nearly one every day, small and large, spilling across farms and into waterways. Like car accidents on a highway, it’s not a matter of if the pipeline will leak, but when—something that even oil companies openly concede.
One, in fact, happened in December just 150 miles from Standing Rock, an incident in which more than 4,200 barrels (180,000 gallons) spilled into a river. And the spills add up—if the 4.2 million barrels (176 million gallons) that have spilled in the past 30 years were counted as a single spill, it would be the third largest in history, right under the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, when 4.9 million barrels spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.
But this prompted more questions. Sure, there are thousands of tons of oil being spilled every year, but having researched clean water for an earlier mapstory I made, I know oil is one of many chemicals causing harm, and that hundreds of thousands of tons of nitrates leach into rivers every year, and hundreds of millions of tons of soil erode into watersheds. Even in the worst-case scenario, where oil is spilled into the Missouri River, it would not come close to how many chemicals are already spilling into the river, and ultimately floating through New Orleans into the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. So what’s so special about oil? And with 190,000 miles of other leaking liquid pipelines—what’s so special about this oil pipeline?
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
As I further researched it, and more was added to the map, I realized it was myopic and misleading to dissect the conflict the way I was. All of the issues are inseparable and add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The pipeline unites many issues and people across its geography, which The New York Times exposed nicely using the data.
Though they may be dwarfed by the larger clean-water issues of farm runoff, oil spills pose a great risk to any place they cross. Many pipelines carry hazardous liquids like crude oil, which is hard or impossible to clean up, and some carry compressed gases, which evaporate when leaked but can still cause ecological harm. Everything from equipment failures to bad weather to accidents can cause a spill, and such incidents have indeed destroyed farms, and polluted rivers and groundwater.
And a spill might be large—most pipeline spills are under 20 barrels (less than 1,000 gallons), but dozens happen every year that dump thousands of barrels. Unsurprisingly, the size of oil spills increases with the size of the pipeline, and the pipelines that have been proposed in recent years are very large—when the Dakota Access Pipeline is operational, it will deliver 470,000 barrels a day.
When the Keystone XL pipeline was proposed in 2011, the pipeline company estimated a likelihood of 11 significant spills (of more than 50 barrels each) over its 50-year lifetime. Critics charged that the estimates were low. An independent assessment by University of Nebraska professor John Stansbury, PhD, claimed that a more likely number would be 91 significant spills when looking at the actual incidence of spills on comparable pipelines with the same data that was used to make the mapstory above.
Stansbury’s assessment went further and claimed that it would take ten times longer to shut down a pipeline than the company’s estimate, and provided worst-case scenarios, including one in which 120,000 barrels could spill into the Missouri River, and 180,000 could spill in the Nebraska Sandhills, seeping into the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest groundwater sources in the world. The Keystone XL Pipeline would have carried 830,000 barrels per day, and was rejected by the Obama administration. Now, its specter looms again as the Trump administration endeavors to push it forward.
What are the chances of a scenario in which the Dakota Access Pipeline or a similar pipeline spills into a water body? Spills are spread across 190,000 miles of pipelines, and very small portions go over rivers. The likelihood of a pipeline spill affecting drinking water by the Missouri River may not be huge, but it is there.
Opponents feel that any threat is a threat―and that the threat is large. And water contamination does happen. Poring over the tables, I found that since 2002, when the government started detailing environmental effects, more than ten percent of the spills had seeped into water bodies, totaling more than 145,000 barrels. The largest happened in Michigan in 2010, when a pipeline deteriorated and spilled more than 20,000 barrels of crude oil, about 8,000 barrels of which entered the Kalamazoo River system.
Regardless of the likelihood of a spill, it is also important to note that what happened at Standing Rock is a matter of principle. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rerouted the pipeline to avoid threatening the drinking water of the residents of Bismarck, North Dakota, but sent it right through territory disputed by the Sioux, threatening their drinking water, as illustrated in the map of the pipeline I coordinated below.
At the heart of the movement against the Dakota Access pipeline are farmers and the Lakota people. At the heart of that is a lack of understanding and appreciation that people have for what is considered sacred. It is widely understood in our country why a flag is not simply a piece of cloth, how stepping on a grave is not simply stepping on dirt, and how fighting for your country is not about what it gives you; but when it comes to the same understanding regarding Native cultures, there is a deep disconnect. As I detailed in a recent radio interview about the mapping effort, it’s time that society overall stop ignoring Natives. It’s time to put them on the map as well.
I have heard some people acknowledge the dangers of pipelines but claim that the efforts are impractical, saying, “oil will flow anyway” and “new pipelines are the safest way for oil to be transported.” Yet many opposed to oil pipelines say that we need to allow ourselves to move toward renewables, a claim that I think is entirely practical when you look at the facts. Renewables have been rising exponentially, driven by the market, and vastly outpacing other forms of energy, and the technology is no more new than the fracking technology that enabled the Dakota Access Pipeline.