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Tina Casey headshot

War in Ukraine Sparks Calls for Energy Conservation as Dakota Access Pipeline Clings to Life

By Tina Casey
Dakota Access Pipeline

The Dakota Access Pipeline being installed between farms near New Salem, North Dakota

A new series of legal setbacks have raised the chances that the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline will finally be shut down. Advocates for the pipeline claim that the oil it transports is needed now more than ever, but others argue that energy conservation is a more effective response to the twin crises of climate change and Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine.

Putin shoots himself in the energy foot

From the fossil energy market perspective, it is more than a little odd that Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to embark on his murderous rampage through Ukraine at this time. After all, Russia’s hold on the European gas market seemed stronger than ever with U.S. President Joe Biden in office.

If Biden’s climate policies succeed in curtailing U.S. gas production, and if activists continue to block new pipelines and other gas infrastructure in the U.S., domestic gas producers will see their European opportunities shrink, leaving the field clear for Russia for years to come.

In addition, just before Putin launched his invasion, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed new rules that will make it more difficult to build new gas pipelines in the U.S.

The problem with supply-side solutions

Instead of continuing to dominate the European energy market, in a few weeks’ time Russia has created the conditions for losing that market entirely. Russian oil and gas have been exempted from international sanctions so far, but policymakers and the private sector are beginning to consider taking that step as atrocities mount.

That has provided oil and gas stakeholders in the U.S. with a golden opportunity to advocate for increasing domestic production and expanding exports.

On March 15, for example, the industry-friendly organization GAIN cited a public opinion survey that indicates support for a ban on importing Russian oil and gas — and support for the Dakota Access Pipeline, too.

“Perhaps the best example of domestic energy operation is the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has transported about 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily for more than the past four years,” GAIN explained. “The poll found Americans support the continued use of the pipeline by a 5 to 1 margin.”

However, an analysis posted on the national security blog War on the Rocks indicates that replacing Russian oil and gas in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere is no easy task. Infrastructure, long-term contracts and political obligations are formidable obstacles.

In addition, Russia’s decision to launch an unprovoked war in Europe has opened a gigantic geopolitical can of worms that cannot be resolved simply by ramping up new fossil energy production and transmission infrastructure.

Drawing on a comparison with the 1970s oil crisis, War on the Rocks authors Emily Holland and Marcos Giuli write: “Western governments now seem poised to repeat these mistakes: They are focusing on outbidding one another for alternative suppliers, rolling back coal phase outs, and trying to sustain demand by subsidizing fuel prices and cutting taxes on gasoline and diesel.”

“The lessons from the 1970s are clear: A disorderly supply-side-only approach to energy crises is a recipe for future strategic and environmental problems,” they emphasize.

The energy conservation solution and argument against the Dakota Access Pipeline

In the 1970s, energy conservation was portrayed as an inconvenience, such as turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater. Holland and Giuli make the case that 21st-century technology has created a new opportunity to practice a more radical form of energy conservation that combines compulsory cutbacks with energy efficiency and alternative resources.

“Compulsory conservation and energy demand reduction is at once a moral, strategic, and environmental imperative, and will ensure the sustainability and credibility of sanctions policies,” they conclude.

The energy conservation response has already begun to gain traction in Europe. Political considerations may prevent the conservation argument from gaining as much force in the U.S., but advocates for fossil energy projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline may still find themselves at risk of losing their case.

In January, the Illinois 4th District Appellate Court ruled that the Illinois Commerce Commission overstepped its authority when it approved an expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in February the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal of a stakeholder lawsuit intended to block a new environmental review of the project.

Energy Transfer, the company credited with constructing the pipeline, also appeared to be hedging its bets in March when it narrowed the terms of a lawsuit against Greenpeace. As described by Greenpeace, the company is no longer contesting statements related to shortcomings in the initial environmental review.

In addition, a new, meticulously detailed analysis commissioned by the Indigenous-led organization NDN Collective makes the case that the pipeline has been operating illegally from the start.

As a broad matter of public policy, NDN Collective argues that enabling the illegal operation to continue signals that the federal government continues to enable recklessness and lawlessness in the fossil energy industry, up to and including the violation of treaty rights with Indigenous peoples.

NDN Collective states that the report, titled Faulty Infrastructure and the Impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline, is “the first report to lay out a full and factual timeline of the DAPL process.” The report presents evidence that the project is technically unsafe, and that due process and legal integrity were absent from the approval process.

A draft of the new environmental impact statement is expected this fall, with a public comment period to follow. Fossil energy advocates are all but certain to raise the specter of an energy crisis fomented by Russian aggression in Europe. However, it is clear that a 19070s response to a fossil energy crisis, with its 50-year history of geopolitical turmoil and environmental disaster, is far out of date in the 21st century.

Image credit: Tony Webster via Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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