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Pipelines: Pathological Decision-making

Why do some government bodies make fundamentally pathological decisions? By pathological, I mean a decision that threatens the well-being, even the survival of life, on this Earth.

For the past six years we at SEHN have been deep in the weeds on crude oil and tar sand pipelines.  Many of you remember the 2016 Indigenous-led uprising at Standing Rock, North Dakota; water protectors tried to protect their drinking water and homelands from the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline. While they don’t make daily news, the pipeline saga is ongoing with more examples, daily, of the pathological mindset that says the short-term economic gains of pipeline construction and operation are worth the monstrous threat to water, climate and communities.

Consider these decisions that are being made now as evidence of a fatally flawed decision-making system, a pathological decision-making system.

These pipeline decisions have been made by dozens upon dozens of agencies that range from the federal state department to local drainage districts. The flaws in the decision-making start from the basic premise of what government is supposed to do. Over the past 50 years the droning mantra has been that government’s job is to grow the economy. The measurement of well-being is the GDP and the number of jobs. The pipeline companies are allowed to present a projected number of jobs to a permitting agency but are not required to actually produce those jobs or verify that they have done so. Yet those paltry number of promised, temporary, jobs are enough to approve a pipeline that now transports oil across the drinking water of many communities and, when burned, accelerates climate chaos.

The metrics used to decide whether to go forward with a project are generally economic. This means that the jobs and temporary benefits of pipeline construction are put on one side of the scale and balanced against the advertising and propaganda of a pipeline corporation. In Iowa, 9 months of temporary construction jobs were enough to sway the Iowa Utilities board to decide that the Dakota Access pipeline met the test of public convenience and necessity. Since it met that test, Dakota Access was given eminent domain and the power to seize vast swathes of privately-owned agricultural land; converting some of the richest farm ground in the world into a tomb for a crude oil pipeline.

In addition, the decisions about pipelines are divided up into smaller segments so that no single entity has final jurisdiction over the pipelines. To be sure, the Army Corps of Engineers has a lot of power to decide whether to grant a permit to cross a major river- and they used that power to stop Dakota Access from crossing the Missouri up above the Standing Rock Sioux’s drinking water intake. That is, until President Trump reversed the decision. Nevertheless, because so many entities had some role in the decision, no one governmental body looked at the project as a whole. Even the Army Corps of Engineers had different districts responsible for different segments of the project.

How should these decisions be made? What constitutes a wise decision rather than a pathological decision?

  1.   The project should not put at risk the foundations of life: clean water, agricultural land, biodiversity, and a stable climate.

  2.   The project should not cause harm to future generations. 

  3. A privately owned or sponsored project should not cause damage to the commons.

  4. The project should have the free, prior and informed consent of the local community, particularly of an Indigenous community.

  5. The safest alternative to a damaging project should be identified and selected.

In sum, government bodies should recognize that their central responsibility is to provide for the well-being of its community members. This means ensuring that the common wealth and public health is not squandered on the altar of the economic false gods.