As PSC considers DAPL expansion, it will weigh tribe's request for spill-related documents

Energy Transfer wants to build a pump station at this site west of Linton in Emmons County to help increase the amount of oil that can flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline. The company’s plan requires approval by the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

Two months after a marathon public hearing over the proposed expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the state agency tasked with permitting the line is planning a meeting to talk through issues raised by the developer and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Among them is whether to require Energy Transfer to provide additional documents related to the risk of a spill.

The Public Service Commission has scheduled the work session for Jan. 23, following up on the November hearing.

“I think there was a very thorough hearing,” Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said. “There weren’t a lot of outstanding questions. I suspect that once we read the arguments from all the parties, we’ll know what questions we have in mind and be able to talk through them pretty efficiently in one or two work sessions.”

After that, she anticipates the commission will make a decision on whether to green light Energy Transfer’s expansion plans.

In light of climbing Bakken production and increased demand for transporting that oil, the company wants to nearly double the capacity of the line to carry up to 1.1 million barrels of oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois. To do so, it would add horsepower by building new pump stations in three states, including one west of Linton in Emmons County.

The proposed facility would extend outside of the previously permitted pipeline corridor, triggering the need for amendments to its permits. The commission must determine whether Energy Transfer’s proposal would “produce minimal adverse effects” on the environment and welfare of North Dakotans.

The company says pumping more oil through the line would not increase the risk of a spill. But Standing Rock, which has long opposed the pipeline and intervened in the case before the PSC, disagrees.

Standing Rock wants the company to turn over a surge analysis and a hydraulic profile that takes the expansion into account. A surge is a sudden shift in pressure on a pipeline caused by a significant change in flow. The company filed a copy of its updated surge analysis with regulators in Illinois, but its contents have not been made public. A hydraulic profile would show pressure levels throughout the pipeline.

The tribe is requesting other information as well, including a calculation of the “worst-case discharge” that could occur at the line’s Missouri River crossing just north of the reservation. The tribe maintains the information is essential for its emergency responders, who would be among the first on-site if a spill were to occur at the river.

In a brief filed after the November hearing, the tribe said such information is “critical to the Commission’s determination of whether the DAPL Capacity Expansion will produce minimal adverse effects.” It’s asking the commission, upon receiving the documents, to make them public and give the tribe 60 days to review them and offer feedback.

Tim Purdon, an attorney representing Standing Rock, said experts working with the tribe raised potential pipeline safety issues at the hearing. While Energy Transfer employees testified that they have thought through those matters, they have not been required to hand over the documents outlining their plans, he said, adding that those documents “need to be vetted.”

Fedorchak said she feels the commission already received substantial information at the hearing, which lasted more than 15 hours.

“Currently I am not anticipating requesting that information, but as we go through all the materials and reread the briefs and the arguments, I might change my mind on that,” she said.

Energy Transfer, in its post-hearing brief, said the expansion “will not increase either the possibility of a spill or the volume of a modeled worst-case-discharge should one ever occur.” It added that issues related to the pipeline’s safety “are not properly before the Commission” and fall under the jurisdiction of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The company said the tribe’s arguments are an attempt to “relitigate” matters already before a judge in a separate lawsuit the tribe filed against the developer and federal government in 2016. That case remains active, and the parties are awaiting a final ruling from a U.S. District Court judge.

Fedorchak said she recognizes that the federal agency plays a role in monitoring pipeline safety, but the PSC has jurisdiction over the construction, operation and maintenance of pipelines. She said she intends to consider both the footprint of the pump station and the operation of the pipeline in making a permitting decision.

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