(CANNONBALL, N.D.) — Despite growing protests from Native American groups and environmental activists, construction of the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline is likely past the point of no return, some experts say, while others noted that to find a solution to the tense standoff, both sides may need to compromise a little.
“You have seen this kind of slow train wreck coming for a long time. One would think that the option that would save face for all the parties would be to re-route the pipeline,” Tyler Priest, a professor at the University of Iowa who served as a senior policy analyst for the President’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, told ABC News.
However, re-routing the pipeline at this stage would incur massive costs and logistical obstacles, such as acquiring new land, permits and organizing construction during the winter months, Priest noted.
The protest near Cannonball, North Dakota, has gained momentum in recent weeks, with thousands of protesters camped out at the location, fueled by donations pouring in from across the country. A crowdfunding website for the protesters recently reached $1 million in donations.
“For Dakota Access, time is money,” Priest added. “They want to get this done as fast as they can.”
“Most of it is already built, so I don’t know if it would require pulling up pipeline,” Priest said of a potential re-route. “If you had to arrange emergency easements at this point in time, it would cost the pipeline company a lot more.”
“The pipeline company and the main advocates for it argue that no laws have been broken and this is following all regulations and laws and permitting at the state and federal level. But clearly there is an impasse with much larger political implications,” Priest added. “In situations like this, two sides have to come to the table and broker some kind of compromise.”
Experts note that there is no perfect way to transport oil, especially the volatile light crude oil from the Bakken Formation — an area that spans parts of Canada and the northern U.S., including North Dakota. But in general pipelines are preferable compared to rail transport because they are cheaper and more efficient, according to Priest.
“If they run the pipeline through [the contested territory], this is going to have very serious political fallout with our government’s relationship with Native Americans. But they can’t just hold up this permit forever,” Priest said. “The logical solution would be that they would re-route the pipeline so that the pipeline gets built and it is not crossing lands that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is opposed to.”
A representative for Energy Transfer partners, the parent company of Dakota Access, did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment. But in the past, the Texas-based company has stated its desire to operate the pipeline as soon as possible.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently reviewing the final easement needed by Dakota Access before they can construct the pipeline under Lake Oahe, which is directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation. A federal judge this summer denied the tribe’s request for an injunction to halt construction of the pipeline, but three federal government agencies (the Dept. of Justice, Dept. of the Army, and Dept. of the Interior) intervened in an unprecedented manner, requesting that the “pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”
Afolabi Ogunnaike, a senior analyst at the energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie who specializes in North America’s crude oil markets, told ABC News, “It is possible to have some re-routing. However, oftentimes when these pipeline companies are approving a route, there are other constraints to consider such as the geography.”
“For Dakota Access, we know construction has continued on much of the rest of the length of the pipeline. It is approaching 90 percent complete in most of the states. So, really it is this 20-mile stretch that is part of this over 1,000-mile pipeline,” Ogunnaike said of the part of the pipeline that was being protested.
“One would imagine that a re-route is possible, but I don’t know how well that would be received,” Ogunnaike added.
“If, for whatever reason, in the extreme case, in which something happens and this pipeline is unable to go forward, then the alternative is the use of crude by rail. It’s more costly and government studies have shown that crude by rail has a higher incident of accidents and leaks than pipelines do,” Ogunnaike said.
Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.