Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Environment & Energy

Dakota Access Pipeline Controversy Hits Home In Pennsylvania

Reid Frazier
Allegheny Front


The ramifications of the Obama administration’s recent decision to temporarily halt construction on the Dakota Access oil pipeline are being felt throughout the country– particularly in Pennsylvania. Industry executives worry about growing public opposition to pipelines, while activists have been encouraged by the success of Native American protesters.

Once under the radar, pipeline projects have taken center stage in an intense battle over the nation’s energy future and global climate change.

The rule of law

Marathon Petroleum CEO Gary Heminger brought it up during his speech at the Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh Wednesday.

Credit Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania
StateImpact Pennsylvania
Self-made oil tycoon Harold Hamm is one of Donald Trump's key energy advisers. He does not believe climate change is a national security threat and warned a Clinton presidency would harm the oil and gas industry.

“Despite the obvious truth that we make modern life possible, some activists try to portray fossil fuels—and the companies that produce, transport, and sell them—as villains,” he said.

The annual gathering hosted by the trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, featured a luncheon panel discussion titled, “Pipelines to Prosperity: Challenges, Opportunities and Lessons Learned.” It was followed by a keynote address from Donald Trump’s energy adviser, oil tycoon Harold Hamm.

He sharply criticized the federal government’s decision to temporarily halt construction on the Dakota Access pipeline, which would ship oil from the Bakken Shale fields to Illinois.

“What we’re seeing here is a complete and total disregard of what made America great,” Hamm said. “The one thing we always had working for our country–and that was a very strong rule of law.”

Former Pennsylvania environmental secretary Michael Krancer, who is now an energy industry attorney, says the opposition is no longer confined to standard NIMBY-ism.

“It’s a CAVE mentality– citizens against virtually everything.”

Oil and gas executives said they need to do a better job with public relations. They noted pipelines help secure the nation’s domestic energy supply — and more gas pipelines are particularly needed as coal plants retire, causing gas to take up a larger share of electric power generation.

A moral compass

On the other side of the state, about 30 people gathered at the suburban Philadelphia headquarters of Sunoco Logistics Wednesday to show solidarity with the Native American pipeline protesters. Sunoco is owned by Energy Transfer Partners, which is the building Dakota Access line.

Credit Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania
StateImpact Pennsylvania
Ruth Ann James (center) protests the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Sunoco Logistics headquarters in Newtown Square, Pa.

It was the latest in a string of nationwide protests over pipeline development. Dennis Coker,  principal chief of the Lenape Indian tribe of Delaware, said he came to express solidarity.

“The pipeline owners are somewhere in one of those buildings back there,” he said. “So we thought that not being able to go to Dakota, we would try to bring public attention to the fact that the movers and shakers, some of the decision makers, are right here outside Philadelphia. We’re hoping to provide them with a moral compass.”

Ruth Ann James also traveled from Delaware to the protest.  James focused her comments on protecting water.

“Tens of thousands of years of blessing the water, learning to live well with the waterways, we are not separate from water,” James told the assembled group. “We are one with the water, we do not live without water, we live in water, and with water and because of water.”

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been protesting the Dakota Access project because it travels through sacred land. But they are also worried about potential impact on their drinking water since the pipeline would tunnel beneath the Missouri River, which is the tribe’s water source.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said in a statement that pipeline are the safest way to transport natural gas.

“While we respect the right to express opinions on infrastructure development, pipelines continue to be the safest form of transporting petroleum products, and we believe that these projects are catalysts for our nation’s economy, creating manufacturing opportunities and real, family-sustaining jobs,” he said.

In a letter sent last week to the media, Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelsy Warren called the concerned over water quality “unfounded.” Energy Transfer Partners is based in Dallas, but acquired Sunoco Logistics in 2012. Sunoco is planning to build the Mariner East 2, a 350-mile natural gas liquids pipeline across Pennsylvania.

Jeff Tittle, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club says so far the deck has been stacked against environmentalists.

“What we find is that the regulators like FERC are a rubber stamp for the industry they’re supposed to regulate,” he said. “We have to go to court and we have to get thousands of people to show up to hearings, and they still don’t listen.”

*This post has been updated with a comment from Sunoco Logistics.

Find more of this report on the site of our partner, StateImpact PA