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The Energy 202: Dakota Access operators call climate change 'undefined, vague, and ambiguous' in official filing

with Paulina Firozi


The operators of the Dakota Access pipeline seemed to brush aside concerns about global warming and the effects it may have on their business in an official filing, saying the phrase “climate change” is “undefined, vague, and ambiguous.”

That comment, filed in August with regulators in Illinois, comes as the pipeline’s operators try to more than double the capacity of the crude oil conduit — and as environmentalists still rail against the pipeline that has become a flash point over fossil-fuel infrastructure in the United States. The Obama administration held up the Dakota Access pipeline after months of protests from environmentalists and Native Americans only for President Trump to greenlight the project once taking office in 2017.

The pipeline’s operators are seeking permission from Illinois to add a new pump station to move extra oil in the 1,900-mile pipeline system of which the Dakota Access pipeline is a part.

Environmental groups, including Sierra Club and Save Our Illinois Land, have asked the pipeline operators for “all documents and communications” from the pipeline’s “ultimate shareholders … concerning the impact of climate change” on their business and operations as part of the permitting process with the Illinois Commerce Commission.

In response, lawyers for the pipeline operator said that “the phrases 'ultimate shareholders' and 'climate change' are undefined, vague, and ambiguous.” 

Dakota Access is operated by Energy Transfer LP, with several other companies, including Phillips 66, Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum, also owning stakes. 

Owen McBride, a lawyer representing the Dakota Access operators in front of the Illinois Commerce Commission, referred inquiries to Energy Transfer. Energy Transfer spokeswoman Vicki Granado said “we will let our comments in the docket stand.”

It is unclear whether the company meant the notion of human-caused climate change is vague or if it more narrowly meant the environmentalists’ request was too imprecise to answer. 

The pipeline operators called the request “overly broad” and “unduly burdensome” for simply permitting a pumping station, and told the environmentalists to look at the parent companies’ public disclosures on climate change.

In filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Energy Transfer, like many other companies in the oil business, has suggested that warmer temperatures could drive down demand for heating fuel while more intense hurricanes could damage coastal terminals for exporting natural gas.

But Sue Reid, vice president of climate and energy at Ceres, a nonprofit organization that coordinates investors’ efforts to cut carbon emissions and is not involved in the Illinois matter, suggested “the objection to terminology like ‘climate change’ is just absurd.” 

“What matters is that it is quite clear what is being asked for,” she said.

John Albers, a lawyer representing the Sierra Club, argued comprehensive document requests such as this one make sense at the start of permitting proceedings. “Whenever you have lawyers answering questions, you don’t want to give them any wiggle room,” he said, adding that his team had expected Energy Transfer to negotiate about the scope of the request. 

The decision about which documents the pipeline operators need to turn over — as well as whether to approve the pumping station at the center of the fight — is still before the Illinois commission. The environmentalists have also asked for information about how quickly the oil will flow and how much demand there will actually be for the extra oil.

During his last days in office, President Barack Obama halted construction on the pipeline, meant to deliver Bakken shale oil to Gulf Coast and Midwest refineries, after months of protests from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other Native American groups. 

The indigenous groups, as well as national environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, were concerned not only about potentially imperiling drinking water and disturbing sites sacred to Native Americans, but also about building out more oil infrastructure that will perpetuate U.S. contributions to the changing global climate. 

But one of Trump’s first acts in office in 2017 was to sign executive orders reviving both Dakota Access and Keystone XL, another pipeline project that was met with similar protests during Obama’s term. 

With that greenlight, the completed Dakota Access conduit began delivering oil to customers that June at a capacity of 500,000 barrels of oil per day. Now Energy Transfer wants permission from state regulators to increase the volume to as much as 1.1 million barrels daily. 

Regulators in South Dakota have already approved an additional pumping station there, but their counterparts in Illinois and North Dakota still have to decide on approving additional stations.


— The EPA moves forward with plan to limit science used in policymaking: The agency submitted an updated version to the Office of Management and Budget of its proposed rule to limit what science the agency relies on in issuing regulations. It's a signal the EPA wants to finalize the policy before the end of Trump’s first term, The Post's Brady Dennis reports. The effort has been long sought by conservatives and first gained momentum in the spring of 2018 when then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt called for changes to “move toward greater transparency that would increase Americans’ trust and confidence in the research on which EPA bases major decisions,” Dennis writes. Although momentum slowed after the initial proposal and after Pruitt left the agency, “Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, has made clear that he intends to move forward with the effort.”

  • The reaction: The proposal has been opposed by many scientists and public health experts. In a statement, Hayden Hashimoto, a legal fellow at the Clean Air Task force, said: “Vague appeals to transparency do not warrant the agency impairing its use of quality science.” Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an online posting: “This proposal has nothing to do with science. They want politicians, not scientists, to evaluate the evidence of harm to the public.”
  • Next steps: If the rule is approved by OMB, the next step would be to seek public comment. On Wednesday, there will be a hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and a top EPA official overseeing the plan is set to testify.

— “I’m very much into climate”: Trump declared himself “in many ways an environmentalist” and “very much into the climate” during remarks at the Economic Club of New York. In response to a question about what he thinks about climate change-related risks, Trump repeated a go-to line about wanting the “cleanest air” and “cleanest water” in the world. “I want clean air and I want clean water, environmentally,” he said.

  • Another potshot at Paris: During his address, Trump also reiterated criticism of the Paris climate agreement, which he said would “just put us out of business.” He called the United States a “relatively small piece of land” and said other countries, such as China, India and Russia, are “absolutely are doing absolutely nothing to clean up their smoke stacks and clean up all of their plants.”
  • A common mix up for Trump: As he has done before, Trump seemed to mix up the idea of the man-made climate change (i.e., buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere) with sooty air (the cumulation of nitrogen oxides, ozone, smoke and other pollutants that form smog and contribute to lung and heart problems).

— Trump Organization ordered to pay $290,000 after losing battle over Scottish wind farm: The agreement to pay the Scottish government for legal fees ends a long-running feud in which Trump attempted to stop an offshore wind farm from being built near one of his golf courses, The Post’s Joshua Partlow reports.

  • The controversy that led to the case: The Trump Organization sued the Scottish government during the planning process for the wind farm, which Trump called a “monstrous” project. But judges on the U.K. Supreme Court ultimately rejected Trump’s legal challenge in 2015, and now the 11-turbine wind farm in Aberdeen Bay "is clearly visible from the fairways and greens of the Trump International Golf Links" in Scotland.
  • As president, Trump is still tilting at wind turbines: “Trump has a long-standing disdain for wind power that has carried over into his political speeches. Trump has said windmills cause cancer, kill birds and prevent people from watching television when the wind’s not blowing,” Partlow writes.

— Another day, another Warren plan: Democratic residential candidate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) wants to hold companies liable for providing false information to federal agencies.

  • The proposal: She released a proposal for a “corporate perjury” law under which companies could face criminal liability, including up to $250,000 in fines or jail time, if they “knowingly submit comments with false or fraudulent information to regulators.”
  • Example No. 1 for Warren is ExxonMobil: “Exxon knew about the risks of climate change decades ago. But their response to discovering the truth was to do everything possible to hide it from the world for as long as possible,” Warren wrote in a post on Medium. “That’s time we can’t get back.”  

— “It’s the most damaging ones that are increasing the most”: The most destructive hurricanes are hitting the United States three times more frequently than they were a century ago, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Copenhagen. “Looking at 247 hurricanes that hit the U.S. since 1900, the researchers found the top 10 percent of hurricanes, those with an area of total devastation of more than 467 square miles (1,209 square kilometers), are happening 3.3 times more frequently,” the Associated Press reports.

  • How does the climate play a role?: “The University of Copenhagen researchers found by analyzing the number of square kilometers of land destroyed that ‘hurricanes are indeed becoming more damaging’ and that there is ‘a detectable change in extreme storms due to global warming,’” per E&E News. “ … The finding has policy implications for officials debating whether to address hurricane damage in part by attacking global warming or solely through adaptation strategies such as moving development away from hurricane-prone areas and strengthening community resilience.”

— Carbon tax gets an ad push: The advocacy arm of the Climate Leadership Council has made a six-figure digital ad buy to promote its proposal for a carbon-tax-and-dividend scheme.

  • The spot: Called "All Sides Win," the 30-second ad is pushing a proposal for a carbon tax put forward by former Republican secretaries of state James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz and endorsed by a number of big companies, including Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and Ford Motor Co.
  • What the tax would do: The group calls for initially placing a tax of $40 per ton on carbon dioxide emissions, and steadily increasing it after that, while rolling back many existing regulations on polluters. Proceeds from the tax would be given directly back to Americans in the form of a dividend check. The ad claims a family of four would get $2,000 per year. 
  • However: While several GOP statesmen back the idea of a carbon tax, only a few Republicans actually in office now have been willing to endorse it.

— FBI launches probe into Pennsylvania pipeline permits: The bureau has launched a corruption investigation into construction permits issued by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's (D) administration for the Mariner East pipeline project, the Associated Press reports. “The focus of the agents’ questions involves the permitting of the pipeline, whether Wolf and his administration forced environmental protection staff to approve construction permits and whether Wolf or his administration received anything in return, those people say.” The construction, which was greenlighted in 2017, has “spurred millions of dollars in fines, several temporary shutdown orders, lawsuits, protests and investigations,” according to the AP.

— Here’s what could happen to California’s solar panel mandate: Last year, California became the first state to require that solar panels be placed on newly built homes. But the California Energy Commission also allowed an option for builders to instead get solar power from an off-site location, the Los Angeles Times reports. “Now the commission is poised to approve the first off-site solar program for new housing — over the objections of home solar installers, who say the agency is creating an escape clause so broad it could render the rooftop solar requirement meaningless,” the LA Times reports. “ … Sacramento utility officials say their proposal is well within the rules of California’s home solar requirement, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2020.”

Venice partly submerged by highest tides in half a century (Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli)



  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on nuclear power.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation will hold an executive session to consider various legislative measures and nominations.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the future of science in EPA rulemaking.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands will hold an oversight hearing.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States will hold a legislative hearing.
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will be featured in a keynote discussion at an event hosted by RealClearPolitics and The National Mining Association.
  • Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) participate in a Center for Climate and Energy Solutions event to discuss a report on policies needed to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. 


— “I think there’s going to be some tears”: Laurie Thompson, who has been Bei Bei's zookeeper since he was born, is preparing to say goodbye to the giant panda who will depart later this month from the National Zoo to China for a breeding program, The Post's Michael E. Ruane reports. All giant pandas in U.S. zoos are owned and leased by China.

As the National Zoo’s giant panda, Bei Bei, departs for China on Nov. 19, his zookeeper reflects on her time with him and what he can expect on the flight. (Video: The Washington Post)