On President Trump’s fourth day of office, he signed an executive order which prioritized the completion of two pipelines: the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL.  This controversial mandate undid months of work and protests, and led to a surprisingly quick reversal of policy.  By June 1, the Dakota Access pipeline was complete, and the Keystone XL was in continued states of discussion.


A map showing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines


Before last year, we rarely heard about pipelines in the news, unless it was to detail a spill.  Recently, though, all that changed.  The Dakota Access Pipeline was close to completion when it reached Lake Oahe, which flows directly into the Standing Rock Reservation and serves as their only water source.  Other arguments included the proximity to the freshwater Ogalalla aquifer, as well as the cultural significance of the land.  Residents of the reservation, pushed back, demanding a full environmental impact study of this area of the pipeline.  The massive protests worked, and construction halted.  That is, until Trump came along.  With a swoop of a pen, the gears were set back into motion; the impact study was rushed and construction was soon completed.


Protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline


So, why are pipelines so important, and what do they have to do with science?  I believe this quote says it all.

“It’s inevitable that as pipelines age, as they are exposed to the elements, eventually they are going to spill, they’re ticking time bombs.”- Tony Iallonardo

One of the most major factors working against these pipelines’ survival is corrosion.  These pipelines all have some aspect made of metal, and something as simple as a chip in a coating could lead to massive corrosion throughout.  This corrosion can compromise the structural integrity of the device, which can lead to the ultimate failure: an oil spill.  Others factors coming from the aging of pipelines can also lead to catastrophe.


Oil spills can have massive environmental impact, which is the main reason these pipelines’ construction was halted.  Time and time again, we’ve seen pipelines spill, and we’ve seen the immense damage they cause to their environment.  Oil molecules take a very long time to break down, and so they can accumulate in the environment and in organisms like plants and animals.  This means that an oil spill is not just a temporary problem, but a longstanding one with severe effects.  Another important consideration is the impact oil can have on water.  Because of pipelines’ underground placement, often close to groundwater aquifers, it can be simple for a spill to send oil into an important water supply, one of the main concerns about the Dakota Access Pipeline.


Safety measures are being implemented, though.  Robotic devices called “smart pigs” move through the pipelines, seeking out problems, and they often find them.  Recently, a smart pig found something concerning in the Keystone XL pipeline, and it was shut down for a brief time to address the problem.  These safety measures reduce the chance of a large scale spill, but the potential for crisis is still present.


“Smart Pig” robotic device


On the other hand, though, the alternative method for transporting oil is via trucks, which have a higher failure rate.  This lower rate of catastrophe in pipelines is sometimes offset by the volume of the spill.  One source likens it to the difference between a car crash and an airplane crash.  Car crashes happen more frequently, but an airplane crash would hurt many more people and warrant further investigation.  When a truck goes down, it maybe spills 10,000 gallons of oil.  A pipeline can easily spill 210,000 gallons before it gets repaired.  Where am I getting this number from, you ask?  This statistic comes from the Keystone XL Pipeline, which has already spilled, leaking oil into the Canadian environment.


Pipelines are not without their benefits, they create jobs and move large quantities of oil very efficiently, but we need to reconcile these benefits with their potential risks to the environment.


What do you think?  Can a cultural heritage significance override the potential economic benefit of a pipeline?  Should the president have the authority to rush something as important as an Environmental Impact Study?  Do you think new technologies to avoid spills will be developed?


Until next time,



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