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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Presidential Candidates Take Aim At Major Oil Pipelines

Several new oil and gas pipelines have drawn the ire of the Democratic presidential candidates, and a few major pipelines could be at risk after the 2020 election.

Ahead of a campaign stop in Minnesota, Senator Elizabeth Warren announced her opposition to the Line 3 pipeline, one of the few major pipelines that could add new midstream capacity from Canada’s oil sands. The existing pipeline, which was constructed in the 1960s, runs from Alberta to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Enbridge is replacing the aging line, which is corroding and running at half its capacity. The replacement will double the amount of oil currently flowing through the conduit.

The problem is that Line 3 has hit legal trouble in Minnesota, where a court ruled that the company didn’t do an adequate job in considering the effects of an oil spill. A few months ago, Enbridge pushed off the in-service date for the Line 3 replacement – it was originally supposed to come online this year, but the company is now targeting the second half of 2020.

Line 3 has long attracted fierce opposition from environmental groups and indigenous tribes. Senator Warren joins Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Jay Inslee in opposing Line 3, which could ratchet up the scrutiny on the project.

Line 3 is not the only major oil pipeline that has come under fire by the Democratic candidates. Sen. Sanders backed the shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline, another aging pipeline that Enbridge is trying to replace. Line 5 travels through Michigan, carrying oil from Alberta to oil refineries in Ontario, Canada.

Line 5 has its own set of problems in Michigan, where the Governor has quite a bit of leverage. The pipeline is the target of lawsuits by the state, and is under pressure to shut down altogether.

The presidential candidates have used various twitter hashtags such as #StopLine3 and #ShutDownLine5 to increase attention and pressure on Enbridge.

Enbridge can take comfort in the fact that the Democratic candidates’ hostility is not reserved only for the Canadian company. In fact, Senator Warren has laid out a plan that includes revoking permits for both Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline. Both projects have been approved by the Trump administration, and the Dakota Access project is already online.

However, Energy Transfer Partners is hoping to double the pipeline’s capacity. In response, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has asked a federal judge to toss out a federal permit for Dakota Access, arguing that the U.S. did not adequately consult the tribe, despite a court order. The Army Corps of Engineers “never engaged with the Tribe or its technical experts, shared critical information, or responded to the Tribe's concerns,” the tribe said in a court filing last week. “The result is an irretrievably flawed decision, developed through a process that fell far short of legal standards. With DAPL's proposal to double the flow of the pipeline, the unexamined risks to the Tribe continue to grow.” Related: U.S. Oil Exports Become Victim Of Their Own Success

The Dakota Access pipeline has leaked oil at least 10 times since it began operations a little more than two years ago, according to InsideClimate News.

While scrutiny on major pipelines is rising once again, it has been the industry that has been on offense in recent years. Industry groups and allies have worked in state capitols across the country to steepen the punishments for pipeline protestors, hoping to prevent a rerun of the 2016 Dakota Access protests, which drew international attention. Since then, around 22 states have introduced punitive bills criminalizing protest, with nine states signing them into law. For instance, Texas passed a law that imposes up to a decade in prison for protesting a pipeline, which is “the same level of felony as attempted murderers,” as the Texas Observer put it earlier this year.

The Trump administration has also proposed this punitive approach at the federal level.

By any measure, the Trump administration and its allies in Republican-controlled states, particularly in oil-producing states, have made the environment for pipeline companies much easier by cutting regulations and using state-level bills to snuff out protests.

But judging by the campaign promises of some of the top presidential candidates, the industry could face a vastly different set of circumstances following the 2020 election.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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