Pipeline Protests: A Decry of Fossil Fuels, not a Voice for the Environment

Posted: August 19, 2020

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Pipelines transporting crude oil, natural gas, and refined products have been a controversial topic for lawmakers, environmental groups, and energy producers throughout the last decade. Since pipelines are the cleanest and safest method of transporting hydrocarbons, the logic behind these protests remains lost on many individuals. But, what the general public must understand is that many protesters are not necessarily trying to shut down pipelines, they are trying to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and force an immediate shift to renewable energy.


In recent months the topic of pipelines and pipeline protests have made headlines time and time again. Many of RARE PETRO’s content segments have also covered this topic like in The Impact of U.S. Regulatory Bottlenecks on Domestic Production or the June and July Basin Breakdown Discussions. It is time to take a step back and truly investigate the pros and cons of oil and gas pipelines in the United States to determine whether or not the headline making protests make any sense.

To begin: a brief history lesson of pipelines. China built the first hydrocarbon pipelines in recorded history out of bamboo around 500 BC. Meanwhile, the first oil pipeline in the United States is believed to have been built in 1862 in Pennsylvania [5]. Before that, boats and wagons were most often used to transport oil from one location to another. So with pipelines being around for so long, why the sudden increase in protesting their existence? They have been proven time and time again to be the safest, cleanest way to transport hydrocarbons. The driving factor is a deep rooted stigma against the oil and gas industry. What the general public must understand is that many protesters are not necessarily trying to shut down pipelines, they are trying to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and force an immediate shift to renewable energy. It is not common knowledge that there are 2.6 million miles of pipelines currently crisscrossing the United States delivering trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products each year to cities across the nation [2]. As a result, U.S. infrastructure is quite literally built on these pipelines as they supply a massive amount of energy to power cities and heat homes. Although environmental activists are pushing for government regulation to eliminate oil and gas pipelines, it is still the safest and most environmentally conscious method for transporting hydrocarbon products. Eliminating them will force companies to use methods of fossil fuel transport that are less environmentally friendly to meet domestic energy demand. 

Recent Hydrocarbon Pipeline Protests

Pipelines transporting crude oil, natural gas, and refined products have been a controversial topic for lawmakers, environmental groups, and energy producers throughout the last decade. Protests have erupted based on decisions by the federal government, midstream companies, and investment banks relating to these projects. Some of the protests against the projects have been legal, like when Seattle decided to move nearly $3 billion of the city’s funds from Wells Fargo to an institution that wasn’t financially involved in the North Dakota Access Pipeline project [17]. Illegal yet peaceful infractions, like trespassing in the Wells Fargo building lobby in Denver, CO during a protest in 2017, have also occurred while farmers shooting above ground pipelines and protestors terrorizing construction workers have been more malicious acts of protest [18]. Many of these protests are framed as protecting environmental resources, but the major goal seems to be eliminating transportation methods, and by association the use, of fossil fuels in lieu of renewable energy alternatives. Recently, there have been four major hotspots for pipeline protests: the Dakota Access Pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois, the Permian Highway Pipeline project from West Texas to the Texas Gulf Coast, the Atlantic Coast pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, and the Keystone XL pipeline from Western Canada to Nebraska. 

Figure 1: Map of the Dakota Access Pipeline Highlighting Protest Sites [8] 

The Dakota Access Pipeline, or Bakken pipeline, is a 1,172-mile long underground oil pipeline in the United States that begins in the shale oil fields of the Bakken formation in northwest North Dakota and continues through South Dakota and Iowa to an oil terminal near Patoka, Illinois [7]. Together with the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline from Patoka to Nederland, Texas, it forms the Bakken system. The $3.78 billion project was announced to the public in June 2014 and construction began in June 2016 [7]. While the pipeline’s construction was completed in 2017, the three years to complete the project were a constant uphill battle. Protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline occurred at several places because of concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the environment and sites sacred to Native Americans [7]. Opposition to the project spurred controversy with environmentalists and indigenous nations around the country along with the local Sioux tribal nations. In North Dakota, next to and on the Standing Rock Reservation, nearly 15,000 people from around the world protested, staging a sit-in for months [7]. While the protests were a hindrance to the completion of the project, the project was eventually completed and operations began in June of 2017. Things ran fairly smooth until March 2020 when a United States District Judge ruled that the government had not studied the pipeline’s “effects on the quality of the human environment” enough, ordering the United States Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new environmental impact review [8]. In July 2020, the same judge ruled the pipeline must be shut down and emptied of oil pending a new environmental review [8]. The temporary shutdown order was overturned by a U.S. appeals court on August 5. According to a Reuters report, a federal judge “ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to detail options by the end of the month for resolving the loss of a permit that allows the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline to operate on U.S. land. Last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia voided an easement that allowed a portion of the pipeline to cross federal property in South Dakota, citing violations of environmental requirements” [9]. By August 31st, the Army Corps of Engineers must present their evaluation of four primary cases for the future of the pipeline, including options that would not require it to shut down [9]. 

Figure 2: Map of the Permian Highway Pipeline [23]

In September of 2018, a new pipeline project in the hill country of Texas was announced. Kinder Morgan Texas Pipeline and EagleClaw Midstream Ventures announced on September 5, 2018 to proceed with the Permian Highway Pipeline project [10]. The ~$2 billion project will provide an outlet for increased natural gas production from the Permian Basin to growing market areas along the Texas Gulf Coast. The pipeline is designed to transport up to 2.1 Bcf/d of natural gas through approximately 430 miles of 42-inch pipeline from the Waha Hub in West Texas to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Mexico markets [10]. This additional pipeline capacity would reduce natural gas differentials and help ease the infrastructure crunch previously seen for transporting natural gas out of the Permian Basin. Not surprisingly, the project has been met with criticism and protests. In August, protesters called for the Texas Railroad Commission to shut down construction on the new pipeline. Protesters are calling the pipeline “a huge threat to our climate, a threat to the drinking water of millions of Texans and an unacceptable threat to land” since a portion runs through the Edwards and Trinity aquifers [11]. So far, the project has continued on schedule and is still in the construction phase with anticipation to be operational in early 2021. While the protests surrounding this pipeline might not have made headline news during the current global crises, it is still certainly relevant. 

Figure 3: Map of the Proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline [15]

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was a planned natural gas pipeline slated to run 600 miles from West Virginia, to eastern North Carolina. “Was” is the opportune word because on July 5, 2020, the project was canceled [15]. The Project originated in September 2013 when the Obama administration granted a request from Dominion Transmission to export gas to Japan and India [15]. Developers hoped to begin construction in 2019 and start transporting natural gas to hubs in North Carolina by 2020. Clearly, this timeframe was not achievable as regulatory bottlenecks and protests dragged the project down, eventually to a grinding halt. Environmentalists latched onto public releases citing the expected destruction of forests and disturbance of other sensitive lands would diminish the ability of these vital regions to filter water, clean the air, and provide other essential environmental services [16]. Additionally, concerns were raised about landslides and streams smothered with soil after runoff from heavy rains. Multiple lawsuits on water and air contamination issues also dogged the project for years. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the pipeline developers regarding the project’s planned crossing beneath the Appalachian Trail, a major victory to the project, it was ultimately canceled by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy [16]. The companies released a statement citing that although the project was “developed to meet the needs of communities across our region and to support the transition to cleaner energy…there is too much legal uncertainty to continue moving forward with this project” [16]. Although it had employed hundreds of individuals since inception and was a path towards cleaner energy in the region, protesters eventually won the battle to end the pipeline plan. 

Figure 4: Map of the Proposed (Phase IV) Keystone XL Pipeline [14]

If ever there was an environmental battle exemplifying a game of table tennis, it would be the stop-start story of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Keystone Pipeline System originally went online in June 2010, operating in Canada and the United States. It runs from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Alberta to refineries in Illinois and Texas as well as tank farms and an oil pipeline distribution center in Cushing, Oklahoma [12]. The pipeline became well known when a planned fourth phase, Keystone XL, attracted opposition from environmentalists, becoming a symbol of the battle over climate change and fossil fuels. In 2015 the Keystone XL was temporarily delayed by President Barack Obama who denied its border crossing, but on January 24, 2017, President Donald Trump took action to permit the pipeline’s completion [12]. The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is a $13 billion project that will connect and secure a growing supply of Canadian crude oil with the largest refining centers in the United States, significantly benefiting the United States energy supply [13]. Additionally, the pipeline would connect the Phase I pipeline terminals in Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Nebraska, by a shorter route and a larger diameter pipe. The proposed Keystone XL Gulf Coast expansion project is an approximately 1,661-mile long, 36-inch crude oil pipeline that begins in Alberta and extends southeast through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska [13]. Since its proposition in 2008, the project has been started, stalled, stopped, and resumed countless times. Dozens of foreign and domestic protests cite the pervasive threats to ecosystems, drinking water sources, and public health [13]. Since the project resumed back in 2017, there have been few hiccups. That is until recently when the Supreme Court ordered all Keystone XL work be halted on July 6, 2020 [14].  Ironically, this was the same day a district judge ordered the already-in-use Dakota Access Pipeline to halt operations and be emptied. The latest work stoppage on the highly controversial pipeline is just the most recent blow to an industry plagued with criticism. 

Life of a Pipeline

To better understand the reasoning behind these protests and determine their validity, the benefits and consequences of a pipeline’s life cycle from construction through decommissioning must be investigated. Long before construction can even begin, there are legal hurdles pipeline companies must go through and permits that must be attained. After all federal and state level permits are approved and easement agreements or eminent domain condemnations completed, the construction process can begin [19]. The planning process can take months or even years, as is common for many pipelines, and may run into so many hurdles the project is canceled entirely. There are truly only benefits to the initial planning phase as all environmental health and safety concerns, public safety concerns, and legal issues must be analyzed and addressed. The only possible downside is an extended timeline to put the asset into service. 

Figure 5: Restoring the Disturbed Ecosystem After Pipeline Installation [19]

If the pipeline can make it through the legal battle to be awarded approval, construction can finally begin. After the area has been mapped, heavy equipment must be staged and storage yards created. Figure 5 shows a “row” that then must be clear cut to remove trees or debris in the way before the trench can be dug [19]. Once the row has been trenched, the pipeline can be transported to the location, strung together, and assembled in the trench to be tested and the area restored [19]. While companies do their best to remediate the area back to its original condition, there are still environmental issues like habitat disturbance and land use considerations. These combined with potential water contamination in lakes, streams, or aquifers top the list of concerns when building a pipeline – and for good reason. Destroying an ecosystem by invading it with heavy equipment can force out animals that may never return or cannot survive elsewhere. At the very least a possibility exists to leave an eye sore for individuals in the area. If fresh water gets contaminated for any reason, both human and animal safety is on the line. While the construction process seems to be full of possible risks, there are also benefits. Job creation, area exploration, and industry collaboration top the list. While potential risks exist that could harm the environment, the due diligence to prevent these issues and inherent benefits to humanity must also be considered. 

Figure 6: Pipeline Safety Facts [21]

Once a pipeline is operational, the environmental concerns seem to fade away. The major concern still present lies in the possibility of a leak causing a spill. Countless studies have been performed on pipeline spills by a multitude of reputable agencies. The EIA, the Canadian Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment, and Natural Resources, the Fraiser Institute, multiple state agencies, and a myriad of energy companies all have confirmed pipelines are the cleanest and safest way to transport hydrocarbons [20]. Since a pipeline is rigorously tested during installation, constantly monitored, and transmission lines are protected by an electrical shield called cathodic protection, the chances for leaks are significantly reduced. Additionally, since pipelines are broken up into shorter sections with monitoring stations, if a leak develops the section is easily identified by a pressure drop. Leaks can be detected almost immediately, meaning the pipeline can then quickly be shut in to prevent additional hydrocarbons from contaminating the environment. Pipeline companies also routinely check the mechanical integrity of the pipe internally using digitally enabled “smart pigs” that can identify corrosion, thin walls, blockages, and other issues requiring preventative maintenance. Furthermore, a University of Alberta professor found that not only do pipelines develop far fewer spills per barrel transported than ANY other transport method, they also create anywhere from 61% to 77% less greenhouse gas emissions than rail when transporting large capacities of crude long distances [3]. While environmental concerns still exist, they are limited due to precautions taken during the construction process, constant monitoring, and operational advancements made over the years. From a cost-benefit standpoint, operating a pipeline compared to other forms of hydrocarbon transportation far outweighs the risks. Alongside SEVERELY mitigated spill rates compared to other transportation methods, pipeline transportation costs are significantly cheaper and require less individual oversight. This limits personnel and overlap needed to manage and maintain the system. To add a cherry on top, there are additional economic benefits like job creation in all phases from planning through decommissioning. 

Figure 7: Steps Taken to Decommission a Pipeline [22] 

No matter how much maintenance is performed, when the pipeline has finished serving its purpose, it must be decommissioned. Not surprisingly, there are thorough, established methods for safely laying a pipeline to rest. Companies are typically required to submit a plan of action to disconnect, clean, fill or plug the pipe to prevent it from becoming a conduit for water or other materials, and remove any unnecessary equipment connected to the pipeline above ground [1]. An environmental review is also required that could entail consulting local communities or developing mitigation measures for risks to the environment. Aside from the environmental responsibility and government regulation, decommissioning a pipeline also creates more jobs! Roles from decommission planning, surface work, subsurface work, and environmental remediation are all generated to decommission a line. Additionally, companies try their best to leave no trace and return the environment to its original state prior to a pipeline. This process is not always perfect, but maintaining personal and environmental health and safety is placed at the forefront of the plan. So what about the hazards? To start with a topic not related to the environment, decommissioning a pipeline is expensive and can be more costly with additional work. In some cases, leaving the pipeline in place might actually cause less damage than tearing it out. This is the case when looking at the decommissioning of the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline, a 1,000-mile segment running from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Minnesota and Wisconsin [1].  “Companies want to put in new lines rather than deal with their old lines, and that’s a national infrastructure crisis,” says Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor The Earth, a prominent indigenous environmental group [1]. Built in the 1960s, the pipeline carried up to 760,000 barrels per day at its peak but now carries less than half of that volume. This is the reason Enbridge wants to build a new one. Unfortunately, abandoning the pipeline in place is a lot cheaper for Enbridge, at $85 million, compared to the $1.28 billion cost of taking it out [1]. So what is the issue with leaving it in place? Environmental concerns exist as Line 3 could become the first major pipeline to be abandoned across a vast stretch of North America. Individuals fear pipelines could spill toxic materials thought to be cleared, rise from the earth exposed by floodwaters or erosion, or might accidentally drain or pollute bodies of water [1]. These fears are the foundation to argue for pipeline removal, but the same environmental concerns for installing the pipe in the ground arise. No matter how it is performed, there is no avoiding some kind of environmental issue attached to decommissioning hydrocarbon pipelines. 

In the future as crude oil demand decreases, we would expect to see the abandonment of more pipelines. Canada’s National Energy Board oversees pipelines that cross borders and requires companies to submit a plan before abandoning a pipeline which includes how funds are set aside to monitor decommissioning and take care of any unforeseen problems [1]. It’s a provision that is lacking in the U.S., although the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration requires abandoned pipelines left in place to be disconnected, purged of hazardous materials, and sealed [1]. Canada has set the precedent for steps to decommission a pipeline and while the United States has taken steps in the right direction, there is a long road for improvement ahead. 


Pipelines are the cleanest and safest method of transporting hydrocarbons, and even with recent advancement in renewable technology it is still the energy source used to fuel our society. By looking at all the pros and cons throughout the life cycle of a pipeline, it is possible to determine if the aforementioned pipeline protests are justified. 

Construction of pipelines promotes job creation and industry collaboration but has the potential to cause habitat destruction and water contamination. Operations and implementation of new lines also creates jobs, reduces transportation costs for hydrocarbons, provides the safest method for transporting these commodities, and is cleaner for the environment than rail or truck transport. The major risk of operating a pipeline is the possibility of a leak, but these occurrences are still less common than rail or freight transport. Decommissioning once again creates new jobs and remeidiates the pipeline area to restore the environment to its original condition. No matter how the pipelines are decommissioned, it is expensive and risks exist to either damage the environment while tearing the line out or have the possibility of ground contamination by leaving it buried. Therefore the biggest pro’s and con’s of a pipeline revolve around the economy and the environment. 

Protestors are attempting to shut down pipelines to choke oil and gas production. This results in an increased cost for delivering fossil fuel energy to the market, making the economics of renewable energy more competitive. Unfortunately, the unforeseen consequence forces the industry to adopt less environmentally friendly methods to transport additional energy sources needed beyond what renewables can provide. Protesters are using the argument that pipelines are harmful to the environment to support the economics of renewable energy. In doing so, the result will cause more harm to the environment they are trying to protect. These people are not opposed to water lines, sewer lines, or even beer lines, yet petroleum pipelines are heinous. Until the world can generate enough green renewable energy to support domestic consumption, the most efficient and safe method of transportation should be used for fossil fuels, especially when the infrastructure is already in place to meet the necessary demand. The best compromise would be to use the cleanest forms of energy possible with the fewest environmental concerns and largest economic impact. Therefore, continuing to utilize pipelines to supply hydrocarbon based energy is environmentally conscious and economically responsible until society can meet its energy demand with a cleaner, economic alternative energy source. 


[1] https://www.theverge.com/21356423/oil-gas-pipelines-abandoned-enbridge-line-3 

[2] https://www.fractracker.org/2016/06/introduction-oil-gas-pipelines/ 

[3] https://www.enbridge.com/energy-matters/news-and-views/carbon-footprint-pipelines-vs-rail

[4] https://eoncoat.com/what-is-cathodic-protection-and-how-does-it-work/

[5] https://randrpipeline.com/10-pipeline-facts-you-may-not-know/

[6] https://www.bts.gov/content/us-oil-and-gas-pipeline-mileage

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/03/north-dakota-access-oil-pipeline-protests-explainer

[8] https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/judge-orders-dakota-access-pipeline-to-shut-down

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/08/10/us/10reuters-usa-pipeline-dakota-access.html

[10] https://www.kindermorgan.com/pages/business/gas_pipelines/projects/php/

[11] https://www.kvue.com/article/news/local/protesters-call-for-permian-highway-pipeline-construction-to-stop/269-6a4ff7f3-09d9-48bf-b5ae-257afbbdc712

[12] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-keystone-pipeline

[13] https://www.globalenergyinstitute.org/background-keystone-xl

[14] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/07/keystone-xl-stalls-again-along-with-other-pipelines/

[15] https://atlanticcoastpipeline.com/news/2020/7/5/dominion-energy-and-duke-energy-cancel-the-atlantic-coast-pipeline.aspx

[16] https://www.cbf.org/about-cbf/locations/virginia/issues/atlantic-coast-natural-gas-pipeline.html

[17] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/08/514133514/two-cities-vote-to-pull-more-than-3-billion-from-wells-fargo-over-dakota-pipelin

[18] https://denver.cbslocal.com/2017/02/10/protesters-disrupt-wells-fargo-lobby-to-denounce-dakota-access-pipeline/ 

[19] https://www.fractracker.org/resources/oil-and-gas-101/pipeline-construction/

[20] https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/Committee/411/enev/rep/rep12aug13-e.pdf



[22] https://www.enbridge.com/~/media/Enb/Documents/Factsheets/FS_Line10_PipelineDecommissioning.pdf 

[23] https://phpproject.com/maps/

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