BISMARCK — The Dakota Access Pipeline cleared a final regulatory barrier to nearly double its capacity on Wednesday, Oct. 14, after Illinois, the last hold-out state on the pipeline’s route, approved its expansion, delivering a major win to North Dakota oil producers and a blow to environmental groups that have opposed the pipeline's operation.
In a ruling released Wednesday, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved projects to construct a new pump station in Hancock, Ill., and expand pumps at an existing station in Patoka, Ill., clearing a path that would allow Energy Transfer Partners, DAPL’s parent company, to shuttle twice its current oil volume out of the Bakken region.
“We are pleased with the decision by the ICC and thank them for their careful consideration of our request,” wrote Lisa Coleman, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer, in a statement. “The Dakota Access Pipeline is the only pipeline that provides a direct route to transport domestically produced crude oil from the Bakken producing region to the Patoka Terminal in Illinois.”
DAPL passes through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, and all states on the pipeline’s route aside from Illinois had already approved the expanded volume. With all the new or improved pump stations up and running, the company would be able to increase the capacity of the pipeline from 570,000 to 1.1 million barrels of oil per day.
The Illinois ruling was celebrated as a major breakthrough for the pipeline by oil industry groups. The Consumer Energy Alliance, a Houston-based energy advocacy group, praised the ICC for "setting politics aside" and called the decision "an important win for families, small businesses, farmers and our region."
But the approved expansion also comes amid a price collapse in the oil market and while DAPL remains in legal limbo, embroiled in a federal lawsuit that could temporarily shut off the pipeline for an extensive environmental review. According to the ruling of a federal judge this summer, DAPL is running without a legal easement at its Lake Oahe crossing just off the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.
“It’s wildly inappropriate to be talking about expansion when the real conversation is about shutting it down,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for EarthJustice who represents the Standing Rock Tribe against the pipeline in the federal case. Without the easement, Hasselman argues that the pipeline is running illegally, noting that Energy Transfer is continuing a build-first strategy that pushes expansion forward before securing federal approval to do so.
Hasselman said that the effects of expansion could be "catastrophic," risking higher volume leaks or oil spills. "It means that the risks go up and the consequences of failure go up," he said.
The approval out of Illinois closes out a chapter in the long saga of the pipeline's proposed expansion in North Dakota. In February, North Dakota regulators approved a permit for Energy Transfer to build a pump station in rural Emmons County southeast of Bismarck, following a marathon hearing in Linton last November in which the company butted heads with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
From 2016 to 2017, Standing Rock was the scene of 10 months of protests against the construction of the original 1,172-mile underground pipeline.
In November's hearing, the tribe argued that adding capacity to the pipeline would increase the risk and severity of potential leaks. The company contended that expansion would help meet consumer demand for Bakken crude oil without posing any greater risk to the environment or people living along the pipeline.
Energy Transfer told Forum News Service that it began preliminary work on the new $40 million pump station in Emmons County this month.
Meanwhile, North Dakota producers are still limping out of the pandemic price collapse. The latest reports from the North Dakota Oil & Gas Division show a slight recovery from the worst of collapse earlier this year, but Lynn Helms, the division’s director, said last month that he expected North Dakota’s production numbers to dip again this fall and winter.
Justin Kringstad, the director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, the new DAPL pump stations are on pace for completion late next year. North Dakota producers will depend on a recover of global oil markets over the next year in order to meet the pipeline's expanded capacity.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.