LINTON, N.D. — With debate over surges and safety, the North Dakota Public Service Commission heard contrasting arguments from oil pipeline operators and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe over the proposed expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
More than 100 pipeline supporters and critics stuck out a 14-hour marathon hearing at the Emmons County Courthouse on Wednesday, Nov. 13. Public testimony could continue on Thursday, Nov. 14.
A proposed pump station about 5 miles west of Linton would make it possible for pipeline operator Energy Transfer to increase the capacity of the pipeline from 570,000 barrels to 1.1 million barrels (23.9 million gallons to 46.2 million gallons) per day. The three-member regulatory board is charged with deciding the fate of the project.
The tribe, which intervened in August, wants the state board to deny the company's request and worries that adding capacity to the pipeline would increase the risk and severity of potential leaks. Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Mike Faith said he was glad the tribe's voice had been heard and he’s confident the tribe will prevail.
The company says expansion would help meet consumer demand for North Dakota crude oil without posing any greater risk to the environment or people living along the pipeline.
The original $3.8 billion pipeline project, which crosses under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, prompted protests from tribal members and climate activists in 2016 and 2017. There was only one non-violent demonstration with about 10 protesters outside the courthouse on Wednesday, a county spokesperson said.
The company called five witnesses, all of whom were either employees or paid consultants. The tribe called three witnesses, including two paid consultants and one enrolled tribal member. The witnesses offered testimony, were cross-examined by the opposition and answered the commissioners' questions.
Charles Frey, the vice president of liquids engineering for Energy Transfer subsidiary Dakota Access LLC, said the proposed expansion of the pipeline would not increase the risk of oil spills. Increased flow rate and velocity are not related to the probability of a leak, he said.
The tribe's attorney, Tim Purdon, also pressed Frey on the possibility of a "surge," which can result from a sudden change in pressure in a pipeline. If severe enough, the phenomenon could cause the pipeline to burst. Surges can occur because of the inadvertent closing of a valve or the starting up or shutting down of a pump. Frey characterized these occurrences as very infrequent.
Pipeline safety consultant Richard Kuprewicz, one of the tribe's witnesses, agreed that surges are rare but said they are "a nightmare" when they occur. Kuprewicz said the company would create a greater risk for surges by pumping oil through the pipeline at a higher velocity.
"I've got a problem with some of the stuff I've been reading," Kuprewicz said. "My obligation is to say I don't want to be here on an investigation after the fact."
The Texas-based company has not filed a surge analysis with the commission, but one has been filed confidentially in Illinois. The tribe argues a pipe burst resulting from a surge could be more devastating if a higher volume of oil is flowing through the pipeline.
Todd Stamm, vice president of pipeline operations for Dakota Access LLC, said more oil flowing through the line doesn’t necessarily mean more oil leaked during a spill. He says the location and pressure at the leaking segment of the pipeline mostly determines the amount spilled.
Jon Eagle Sr., the tribe's historic preservation officer, was the tribe's final witness. Eagle introduced himself in the Lakota language and told the commission stories about his ancestors' history on the land in question before describing his opposition to the pipeline and the pump station. He said his greatest fear was that his children and grandchildren would suffer from an oil spill that affects the tribe's water supply.
"I understand why (the pipeline operators) are willing to take this risk — because it's not happening in your backyard," Eagle said. "Our entire existence is dependent on that area."
Administrative Law Judge Timothy Dawson, who oversaw the hearing, rejected the company's request to strike the tribe's witnesses on the basis that their testimony was not relevant to the case. The judge said the commissioners would be able to discern what testimony would be applicable.
The hearing was attended by more than 300 people, including large contingencies of local union workers and enrolled tribal members. Many sat on wooden bleachers in the back of the auditorium for more than 12 hours.
Steve Cortina, an organizer with the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said his organization decided to show support for the expansion because Energy Transfer has hired local workers for pipeline construction and avoided any harmful incidents in the workplace. More than 15 of Cortina's colleagues in bright orange shirts sat front and center at the testimony.
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who was a central figure in initial pipeline protests, said the stakes haven't changed since her involvement began more than three years ago. The pipeline and more broadly, fossil fuels, are harming her ancestral homeland, and sustainable energy is the path forward, Allard said.
Members of the public had an opportunity to speak after testimony from tribe and company witnesses.
Among the speakers was Donna Kurszewski, who lives a few miles from the pipeline with her husband, Chuck. Kurszewski voiced her opposition for the project and said she was concerned a breach could occur near the Beaver Creek, which is a tributary of the Missouri River.
The commission will hold work sessions to decide whether to grant permission to build the pump station. The commission's determination will be based on whether the proposal meets state legal requirements, Chairman Brian Kroshus said.
Considerations will include the welfare and best interest of North Dakotans and the environmental impact to the proposed 21-acre site of the pump station. The commission may also look at the safety and environmental implications of nearly doubling the pipeline's capacity, but the process is not about "re-litigating" the original construction of the pipeline, Kroshus said.
"Our job is to make sure (the company) meets requirements outlined in the law, not to rewrite laws," Kroshus said before the hearing. "The worst thing a regulatory body can do is move the goalposts and create uncertainty."
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said the commission must determine where the line lies between taking advantage of the state's massive oil reserves and causing minimal damage to the environment and North Dakotans.
"We're here for one reason and that reason is that North Dakota has been extremely blessed. We have incredible resources and lots of them," Fedorchak said. "So, how do we go about developing those resources in a way that balances the value of those resources with also protecting the environment and the people?"
The 1,172-mile underground pipeline transports crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to central Illinois, from which it is shipped to Midwest and Gulf Coast refineries.
Frey said the company has not yet hired a contractor for the pump station project, though it plans to use union labor. The company hopes to start construction in next spring and complete the project by the end of the year, Frey said.