LSA town hall unpacks controversy surrounding Dakota Access Pipeline

Monday, March 13, 2017 - 9:32pm

Central Student Government holds a Town Hall to discuss the Dakota Pipeline at Hussey Hall on Monday.

Central Student Government holds a Town Hall to discuss the Dakota Pipeline at Hussey Hall on Monday. Buy this photo
Aaron Baker


Students and faculty discussed ways to manage the nation’s energy requirement and protect the rights of both Native Americans and the environment during a town hall hosted Tuesday evening by LSA Student Government. The town hall was sprouted out of the national controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

About 35 people met in the Michigan League to listen to four panelists: Mark Barteau, director of the University of Michigan Energy Institute, Philip Deloria, professor of history and American culture, who is an expert of Native American studies, LSA senior Jayson Toweh, president of Students for Clean Energy and Adam Simon, associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

LSA sophomores Sophia Leon and Connor Kippe — respective chair and vice chair of the sub-committee of LSA SG called Taking Responsibility for the Earth and Environment — began planning the event shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

The pipeline’s proposed route crosses under a lake near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Thousands of demonstrators from across the country spent months camping on the reservation in protest of the damage that could be done by the pipeline to the Sioux Tribe’s water sources. In December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced the 1,172-mile pipeline would be rerouted, but President Donald Trump reversed the decision with an executive action on Jan. 24, ordering construction to continue.

“We decided to organize (the event) quite a while ago,” Kippe said. “It’s taken a while to get all of the professors together, but we started planning the event back when it was still really contentious and in was up in the air a lot, now it's a little bit more subtle.”

Leon stated changing policies and administrations resulted in some challenges planning the event.

“It’s interesting, because we’ve seen a lot of changes while planning the event in terms of the administration and what actions they’ve taken,” Leon said. “We just hope people get a balanced view and the different facets of the problem.”

Simon began by providing background information on the history of pipelines in the United States and the vast network of pipelines that exist today, noting 58 percent of all U.S. crude oil is transported through pipelines. He acknowledged other methods of oil transportation, such as rail or water, but if these methods are used as alternatives to pipelines, they would inevitably result in an increase in spillage and accidents.

“There are now several million miles of total pipelines, all of which exist because oil is pulled out from one location and transported to another location and then to the end consumer,” Simon said.

Simon also discussed some of the environmental implications of the pipeline, including energy usage and carbon emissions. 

DAPL extracts oil from an unconventional reservoir. This necessitates a process called hydraulic fracturing, which involves forcefully creating openings in rocks through which oil or gas can be extracted. Simon believes this process results in a relatively low energy return on energy investment.

“If you compare (DAPL) oil to oil from Saudi Arabia, it emits more greenhouse gasses per unit of energy than we actually consume on our end,” Simon said.

He went on to highlight leakage as another environmental concern, both on land and in surrounding rivers.

When asked about the economic implications of building the pipeline, Barteau said the crude oil the pipelines carry is highly valued, and using pipelines as the method of transportation is the most cost effective. Other methods of transportation are not actively pursued because they are less economically efficient.

“It’s difficult to look at it in economic terms as far as having it or not having it,” Barteau said. “Certainly, transporting by rail costs more and is less efficient, but that would likely happen if the pipeline doesn't get built.”

Deloria spoke about the challenges that the people of the Sioux Tribe, who have been integral in the Standing Rock protests against the pipeline’s development.

“I think one of the reasons this has become important is because this has become one of the most interesting moments in indigenous organizing that we’ve seen since the 1970s,” he said.

When proposing the pipeline, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contacted the Sioux tribe through a variety of letters. The indigenous people did not respond with much concern, as they expected a personal visit. 

“This is an instance of a cultural communication problem,” Deloria said.

LSA freshman Zoey Plonka said she initially came to the panel due to her interest in environmental activism, but realized the issue is more complex than she had originally thought.

“I’m interested in environmental justice, especially regarding the implications of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Plonka said. “I thought the panel was really interesting because the panelists explained how complex the issue really is, and there isn’t a simple fix.”