Blocking the Dakota Access pipeline would have increased air pollution near rail lines and done little to decrease oil production in the Bakken shale, according to a new analysis from University of Chicago researchers.
The paper released last week estimated that if Dakota Access had been stymied, 81 percent of the “blocked pipeline flows” would be handled by rail instead.
While stopping the pipeline would have kept some carbon emissions underground, the local pollutants that would have been released from alternative rail traffic highlight an “environmental justice dilemma,” it said. Oil production in the Bakken shale formation would have declined about four percent if Dakota Access did not become operational, the study added.
“Blocking DAPL would therefore have kept some crude oil in the ground, but by an amount considerably less than DAPL’s capacity,” the researchers said, using an acronym for the pipeline.
The paper is intended to show the tradeoffs associated with preventing pipelines from getting built, the authors said.
While it tends to be easier to block a pipeline than oil and gas production broadly, not having a pipeline comes with its own set of repercussions, said Ryan Kellogg, a paper co-author and a professor from the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
“The message of the paper is that you don’t get that feasibility for free. … It comes with costs, and I think the big one, particularly with Dakota Access, is that you’re going to get this substitution for crude by rail, which brings environmental problems of its own,” Kellogg said.
The 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline, which began operating in 2017, moves crude from North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa before ending in south-central Illinois. The conduit then connects to refineries in the Midwest and in the Gulf of Mexico.
Operated by Energy Transfer, the pipeline sparked mass protests in 2016 concentrated near Cannon Ball, N.D. Today, the pipeline moves more than 500,000 barrels of oil per day, according to the study, which assessed how much of the pipeline’s oil would have stayed underground had it not been completed.
Energy Transfer didn’t provide a comment on the report when asked by E&E News.
To reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the same amount as blocking Dakota Access, authors said it would be cheaper to directly tax or regulate oil production at the source. That could be in the form of a state-imposed tax similar to the royalties that producers pay for production on public lands, the researchers said.
“Blocking pipelines isn’t the most efficient approach to reducing emissions,” said Thomas Covert, scientific director at the University of Chicago’s Energy and Environment Lab, in a news release about the study he co-authored. “Each [metric ton] of CO2 avoided by blocking a pipeline costs more than simply taxing or regulating oil production at the source.”