Ed Fallon, a long time progressive political activist in Iowa and founder of the grassroots organization Bold Iowa, has dogged presidential candidates before the state’s first in the nation primary caucuses for more than two decades.
A member of the Iowa legislature from 1993-2006, Fallon has worked on issues such as opposing war, sustainable agriculture, and in more recent years, the climate crisis. This year, Fallon and others at Bold Iowa confronted every Democratic Party candidate about their position on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and other climate change issues.
DAPL brings oil extracted in North Dakota diagonally across Iowa and eventually into Illinois where it connects with the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline (ETCO). ETCO then brings the oil down to Gulf of Mexico refineries, and soon perhaps increasingly to the global export market.
Fallon’s most recent encounter, one with former Vice President Joe Biden on January 26, ended with Biden gently pushing him away and telling him to “go vote for somebody else.” Though a supporter of Tom Steyer, Biden assumed Fallon supported Bernie Sanders.
For Bold Iowa, a central part of their organizing strategy in the months leading up to the caucuses was confronting candidates in person.
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“We’ve got over 250 people statewide, who early last year agreed to birddog candidates on climate and most of them have been to at least one and some of them a dozen or more events,” Fallon said. “I mean, several people have been to probably 50 events.”
They also asked candidates questions on issues such as their stances on the Green New Deal and how they will respond to the climate crisis if they become president.
But it is Dakota Access, the pipeline owned by the Dallas-based company Energy Transfer Partners, that has taken center stage. The pipeline was subject to the most prolonged and largest mobilization against a pipeline proposal in U.S. history near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.
“In terms of local connections to climate change, it’s the biggest issue here in Iowa,” Fallon said.
During the 2016 election cycle, Dakota Access was in proposal phase. But by 2017, it opened for business with an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, who received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren during the 2016 election cycle.
It is the proposal to double the pipeline’s capacity to about 1.1 million barrels a day, that is now up for consideration. North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin, where the oil flowing through the pipeline is obtained via the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) drilling process, currently produces 1.5 million barrels per day of oil.
Bold Iowa has confronted 17 different candidates on the expansion plan, with nine of them opposing the plan. Fallon also worries, though Energy Transfer Partners often makes its sales pitch for the pipeline in the name of “energy security,” that “nearly every drop of this oil they want to double through here is going to be for export.”
Fallon and Bold Iowa’s concerns are supported by a review by The Real News of investor call transcripts and lobbying disclosures. The ability to export that oil to the global market is the central calculus behind the expansion push—an endeavor Energy Transfer Partners has called “capacity optimization”.
In June, when the company notified the Iowa Utilities Board that it intended to double the pipeline’s capacity, it also used that phraseology. For the company, “optimization” entails opening up new global market frontiers for exporting its oil.
In September, Energy Transfer Partners acquired SemGroup for $5 billion. As part of the purchase, the company also announced that it will construct the Ted Collins Pipeline, a 75-mile line that will shuttle oil between two major export terminals. One of them in Nederland, Texas Energy Transfer Partners already owns, while the other in St. James, Louisiana it acquired as part of the SemGroup acquisition.
The availability of “export opportunities” of up to two billion barrels per day of oil at the two Gulf of Mexico-based terminals is the top bullet point in the press release announcing the merger. Prior to the September announcement, in its August call with investors, Energy Transfer Partners explained that it is also in the midst of applying for a deepwater docking permit with the U.S. Maritime Administration.
A slew of companies in recent years have applied for such permits from the agency to allow for dredging, a process to deepen coastal area waters and enable heavy Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) to come ashore and pick up oil for exports. The U.S. Energy Information Administration concluded in a 2018 analysis that without VLCC loading areas, the process of doing oil exports is exponentially more expensive.
Federal lobbying disclosure forms show that beginning in the second quarter of 2019, Energy Transfer Partners began lobbying for “issues associated with channel dredging and harbor maintenance.” The company hired former chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Energy under President George W. Bush, Adam Ingols, to do the job. That lobbying continued in successive quarters for the rest of the year, the disclosure forms detail.
In Energy Transfer Partners’ next investor call held in November, the company stated that it hopes to begin exporting from the two interconnected hubs by 2022 or 2023. And it tied those plans explicitly to “optimization” of Dakota Access.
Exports along the Gulf of Mexico became more likely when Philadelphia Energy Solutions, a refinery co-owned by Energy Transfer Partners and its subsidiary Sunoco, exploded in June and announced it would shutter. Much of the oil obtained from fracking in the Bakken formerly moved eastward by rail to that refinery, which was the largest on the east coast and equipped to intake Bakken crude, until Dakota Access opened for business in 2017 and changed market dynamics.
Tim Donaghy—a senior research specialist for Greenpeace USA—also harkened back to President Barack Obama’s 2015 decision to undo the crude oil export ban, in place since 1973, as a root of the problem.
“The fact that DAPL’s owners are planning to double its capacity with an eye to increasing exports is yet more evidence that removing the crude export ban in 2015 was a mistake that has deepened our climate crisis and made the needed transformation of the U.S. energy system significantly more difficult,” Donaghy told The Real News. “Removing the export ban was a crucial factor in sparking the ongoing boom that has made the U.S. the world’s largest oil producer.”
Image Credit: Oil Change International/Greenpeace USA
According to a report co-published by Greenpeace USA and Oil Change International and released on January 28, reinstating the export ban would equate to closing between 19 and 42 coal-fired power plants for preventing greenhouse gas emissions. Since Obama signed legislation that lifted the ban, exports have grown over 750 percent, the report concludes.
Energy Transfer Partners did not respond to a request for comment on the potential climate change impacts of its proposal.
Standing Rock Redux
Initially when Energy Transfer Partners notified the Iowa Utilities Board that it intended to perform an “optimization project” for Dakota Access, it stated that it did not need to notify the agency under state law, but was doing so as “courtesy.”
“None of the improvements that Dakota Access intends to make in Iowa as part of the Capacity Optimization require an amendment to the permit or constitute reportable changes for which a notice to the Board is required,” the company wrote. “Dakota Access nonetheless provides this notice as a courtesy to the Board to provide it information regarding the work that will be performed.”
The company added that it would not gobble up any new land under the proposal and it could double the capacity by adding more pump stations and horsepower to enable more oil to flow through the line. The Iowa Utilities Board did not agree with the Energy Transfer Partners, though, telling the company in a September 2019 order that it must file an application for amending its permit because the proposal amounts to an entirely new project for consideration.
More recently, the Story County Board of Supervisors in Iowa—the government for the county which houses one of Energy Transfer Partners’ pump stations in Cambridge, Iowa—voted unanimously on January 7 calling on the Iowa Utilities Board to hold a public hearing to “investigate how the proposed doubling of the flow of oil serves the public convenience and necessity of the residents of Iowa, when in fact the U.S. has become a net exporter of oil.”
The Board also called on the agency to “weigh any potential benefits to the residents of Iowa against potential dangers to public health, safety and welfare—specifically harm to our land and water—due to an even higher potential for pipeline leaks and breaks.”
Fallon said Bold Iowa and its allies plan to use this decision by Story County to push for a public hearing in the weeks following the Iowa Caucuses, saying the prospect of a hearing is “going to be a big deal” and adding Bold Iowa has intentions to “really promote the heck out of that.”
And after months of regulatory docket submissions, the Iowa Utilities Board ordered Energy Transfer Partners on January 21 to “provide expert explanation of whether the increased flow will increase the amount of oil that will be released if a spill occurs,” the Associated Press reported.
Things are heating up outside of Iowa, as well, extending into the pipeline’s point of origin in North Dakota.
Among the groups speaking out against the expansion proposal there, once again, is the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The tribe was an official intervenor against the proposal in front of the North Dakota Public Service Commission. The Commission has yet to make a decision on the proposal, but held a hearing on November 13.
“In every era, when the United States responds to demands from those seeking to advance particular economic interests – for gold in the Black Hills, for land for non-Indian homesteaders on our Reservation, or for navigation or hydropower – it has always been the Tribe that has borne the heavy burdens, through the loss of our lands and harm to our way of life,” wrote Jon Eagle, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in a pre-hearing written testimony. “In every case, the United States has ensured that the interests of others are advanced, while the interests of the Tribe are ignored.”
“The siting of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which crossed treaty lands stolen from us and puts our waters at risk of spills and leaks, is simply another chapter in this story,” Eagle continued.
Greenpeace’s Donaghy said that the redux of the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline symbolizes a tipping point in the area of climate justice.
“The resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline shows that frontline communities — in particular Indigenous people and people of color — are no longer willing to shoulder the burden of air and water pollution that comes from oil and gas drilling and infrastructure,” he said.
A Dakota Access expansion application still remains undecided in three of the four states it would cross, with the company’s application to “optimize” its pipeline getting the green light in South Dakota in October.
Bold Iowa and 50 other organizations did a climate parade on February 1, two days before the Caucus, a march ending at the main media hub for national outlets that come to Iowa to cover the Caucuses. The ending point was not an accident, but part of an ongoing strategy.
For Fallon, he said his group hoped to get the media to shine a light on the pipeline expansion plan through the march and by confronting candidates over the past several months. But instead, he added, the pipeline has garnered far less attention than the original proposal in the months before the 2016 election.
“It’s just been a real surprise to me that neither local nor national media have focused on DAPL, because I mean DAPL was a huge national story for a couple years,” Fallon said. “It is surprising that nobody’s picked it up.”