Branstad urged Army Corps to give last green light for Bakken pipeline

Governor Terry Branstad denied in September that he's a friend to Big Oil interests seeking to build the Dakota Access (Bakken) pipeline across four states, including Iowa.

But in a move his office did not announce last week, Branstad joined North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple and South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard to urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to delay approval of the final federal easement needed to complete the pipeline.

Activists opposing the Bakken project have called for a more thorough review of the 1,168-mile pipeline's environmental impact, including its potential to increase greenhouse gas emissions as well as possible damage to soil and water resources along the route.

In their letter to senior commanders, the governors repeatedly urged the Corps to "adhere to the [environmental review] process which was in place when this project began." They claimed utilities boards and commissions in their respective states "agreed that the efforts outlined by Dakota Access will maintain the integrity of the land the pipeline crosses and will avoid or mitigate any effects to the surrounding environment or communities along the route." The Iowa Utilities Board did not independently assess how the Bakken pipeline might affect Iowa farmland and water, either during construction or in the event of a possible spill.

Dakota Access is a subsidiary of the Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners. In July, the Army Corps granted the company a federal permit to build the pipeline across 64 waterways in Iowa. However, Lynda Mapes reported for the Seattle Times on October 29, "Energy Transfer Partners still needs a final easement from the Corps of Engineers to cross a piece of government land and build the pipeline under the Missouri River."

Making their case for sticking to "the current environmental review process," the three governors wrote,

We understand that there is an effort underway to evaluate and potentially amend the process by which the federal government relates to tribal nations with the siting and permitting of potential infrastructure projects. Until formal changes are made to your regulatory process, it is critical to adhere to the current and established regulatory requirements in place today.

Further delay in issuing the easement will negatively impact our states and our citizens. Construction delays will negatively impact landowners and farmers who will risk having multiple growing seasons impacted by construction activities. It is in the best interest of all parties to mitigate any further negative impacts.

We recognize the importance of environmental stewardship and have great trust and respect for the diligent work and review state officials have conducted over the past year and a half. We strongly support their decision to approve the project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mission is to facilitate energy-related permits as a national objective and prioritize those applications. With this mission in mind, we urge you act expeditiously to execute the regulatory review process that was in place when this project began.

What "diligent work and review"? The Sierra Club Iowa chapter petitioned the Iowa Utilities Board last year for an environmental impact report that would have considered many factors not addressed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources or the Army Corps of Engineers. Fifteen state representatives (twelve House Democrats and three Republicans) had written previously to the board, recommending an "independent environmental impact assessment" to be financed by Dakota Access. The board rejected the legislators' suggestion and denied the Sierra Club's motion.

Democratic State Representative Chuck Isenhart brought Branstad's October 25 letter to my attention in a November 3 Facebook post. He observed, "Dakota Access started and continues pipeline construction knowing it did not and does not have all the permits it needs. They voluntarily accepted the risk if one or more was not issued or not issued according to its timeline. Governors do not have the job of rescuing private businesses from their risky decisions. Or do they?"

Indeed, Mapes reported that

the Obama Administration has said no easement for the pipeline will be granted until the Corps reviews its work on permits so far, to determine if it needs to reconsider them.

The administration has repeatedly asked the company to stop construction voluntarily within a 20-mile corridor near the Missouri River crossing while the project is under review. But the company has declined to do so.

President Barack Obama said on November 1 that the Corps is looking for options to alter the pipeline route in North Dakota in response to concerns raised by American Indian tribes. If Dakota Access loses money because of easement problems or a change in route, the company's managers have no one to blame but themselves.

In their letter to the Corps, Branstad and his fellow Republican governors said federal officials have "spent well over a year reviewing the permit and it is now time for the Corps of Engineers to proceed with the last step of the process so that our states can begin to realize the benefits and opportunities provided by this important and vital piece of energy infrastructure."

Yet Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson found Dakota Access exaggerated the number of jobs that would be created in Iowa during pipeline construction. Once the pipeline is complete, only about twelve to fifteen people in Iowa would be needed to operate it--a negligible economic impact.

Assisting corporations and downplaying environmental concerns are standard pages of Branstad's playbook. So why didn't he proudly tell Iowans last week that he had intervened with the big, bad federal government to promote "this important and vital piece of energy infrastructure"?

My wild guess: Branstad didn't want to shout from the rooftops that he'd rather use his political capital for Texas-based oil interests than on behalf of Iowa landowners adversely affected by the pipeline.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry serves on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access. Perry organized a fundraiser for Branstad's last re-election campaign in late 2013. At least five Texans who lead corporations with a stake in pipeline construction made large contributions to Branstad's campaign around that time.

Speaking to journalists in September, the governor denied using his powers to ensure that the Bakken project would go forward:

Branstad described the pipeline's approval as stemming from a "very thoughtful and very deliberative" process by the Iowa Utilities Board. He noted that informational hearings were conducted in each of the 18 counties along the pipeline route.

As governor, Branstad said his only role is to appoint citizens to the Iowa Utilities Board, and he added that he doesn't always agree with the board's decisions.

"But I respect the process and the decisions that they have made, and I believe it is important that we not interfere with the rights of workers who are building the pipeline," Branstad said.

Lawsuits challenging the Iowa Utilities Board's actions and the use of eminent domain for a private company are pending in Iowa courts. Let the record reflect that Branstad has expressed no concern for the plaintiffs' private property rights.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: I didn't realize State Senator Rob Hogg posted about Branstad's letter on October 29. Hogg has long opposed the Bakken pipeline as well as the use of eminent domain for that purpose. He advised like-minded Iowans,

Two things you can do: (1) write the Army Corps of Engineers to urge them to continue their review of the project at Clock Tower Building, P.O. Box 2004, Rock Island, IL 61204-2004, and (2) contact Governor Branstad's office at 515-281-5211 to urge him to stop the pipeline until the lawsuits are resolved.

Top image: pipes intended for use in the Dakota Access pipeline being stored in Jasper County, Iowa during 2015. Photo provided by Wallace Taylor, used with permission.

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