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Facts and Nonpartisanship Must Drive Pipeline Infrastructure Approval

July 20, 2021, 8:00 AM

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has flown under the radar for much of its 219-year history, safeguarding the public and the environment around critical infrastructure development. However, the agency has recently been thrust into the spotlight of several high-profile pipeline projects.

Still savoring the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, environmental activists are hoping that momentum will carry over to other projects, namely the Dakota Access, Minnesota’s Line 3, and Michigan’s Line 5 pipelines, with hopes for similar outcomes. But with pipelines, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach—each must be examined on its own merits as it goes through the approval process. We can be confident the Corps is responsible for balanced oversight.

Each Pipeline Is Different

Despite activists’ best efforts to use Keystone as a bellwether, the Line 3 and Line 5 pipelines illustrate why all pipelines cannot be painted with the same broad brush. While comparable on the surface, completion of the required procedural regulatory steps yielded significantly different outcomes.

The 1,000-mile Line 3 pipeline was built in the 1960s and is essential to delivering the crude oil required by Minnesota’s refiners and, in turn, consumers. After five decades it is now operating at 50% of its capacity due to operational efficiency issues and preventive safety concerns. Not surprisingly, Enbridge, the pipeline’s operator, wants to install new pipe meeting the latest safety and efficiency standards. The upgrade would be finalized with the 282-mile section in dispute.

Michigan’s Line 5 pipeline was built in 1953, which makes it even older than its Minnesota counterpart. The pipeline currently transports 540,000 barrels per day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids that are refined into propane. All told, the pipeline delivers 55% of Michigan’s propane, heating homes and businesses throughout the state. In a proactive measure to make Line 5 even safer, Enbridge reached an agreement with the state to replace the existing dual pipelines with one secured in a larger underground tunnel.

Separate Paths

Despite being similar in scope, the two pipelines are now on separate paths. The Corps recently affirmed its prior approval of a Clean Water Act permit for Line 3 in a Justice Department brief filed with a federal court in Washington, D.C.

The brief noted that “The Corps met its ... obligations by preparing an Environmental Assessment (EA), which included consideration of the impacts from the Corps’ authorizations, including to wetlands, the climate, low-income and minority populations, Tribal rights to hunt, fish, and gather, and all of the issues to which Plaintiffs draw special attention.”

Line 5, on the other hand, will require a much more deliberate approach before arriving at the finish line, as the Corps will conduct an in-depth environmental impact statement (EIS), which Enbridge says could delay construction for years. Jaime Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, explained that the Corps “received thousands of public comments and tribal input on the proposed project, which warrant further review through an EIS, including potential impacts to navigation.”

Environmental groups and activists responded by praising the Corps for ordering the Line 5 EIS, then the next day castigated them for standing firm on the Line 3 water permit. The mixed reactions are unfair to the dedicated career professionals in the Corps who are following the established procedural process.

These hard-working men and women strive to fulfill their responsibility to support economic development while ensuring there are applicable procedures to minimize environmental effects. They do so by rising above politics and examining the evidence on a case-by-case basis. They make hard calls on projects like these every day, using the best science and engineering data to justify their positions, for which we should all be grateful.

Corps Professionals Targeted Unfairly

This is not the first time that the Corps professionals have been the target of criticism for simply doing their jobs, following the facts, and issuing the correct—albeit unpopular with some—decisions. Much like the Enbridge projects, the Corps found itself in the middle of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) political firestorm.

Environmental groups were calling for DAPL to be shut down while an EIS was being conducted. As usual, the Corps followed the process in place and determined that the pipeline could remain operational, relaying their position to U.S. District Judge James Boasberg on two separate occasions. In turn, Boasberg ruled in May that DAPL would not be shut down pending the environmental review before ultimately dismissing the case in June.

The 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipeline are a critical component of our nation’s infrastructure system and the safest method for delivering valuable energy resources to Americans. At times they require upgrading or replacement, a process that should be free from any political bias, emotion, or unsubstantiated pressure from activist groups.

The Corps takes its duty to the nation seriously and makes determinations that are rooted in facts and science. This agency has put itself in the crosshairs of some extraordinarily complex infrastructure decisions for many decades and should continue to have our support in doing so.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Tom Magness is a strategic adviser to the Grow America’s Infrastructure Now (GAIN). He formerly served as a commander in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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