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Destination Illinois: The State's Key Role In The Dakota Access Pipeline

When Chicago writer Sarahlynn Pablo heard about the Standing Rock demonstrations in North Dakota last year, she wanted to get involved somehow. But the epicenter of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) felt very far away. That was until she realized that the controversial crude oil pipeline — restarted last month after a White House directive — ends right here in her home state.

So, she wrote to Curious City: What is Illinois' involvement in the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline? Which state agencies, legislators and companies are involved?

Well, the “what is” wording is a bit out of date; DAPL’s presence in Illinois was settled more than a year ago, and construction was largely wrapped up last November. The process of how that happened is wonky, but Sarahlynn’s question remains important, and not just because the oil industry is a major economic player in the United States. Pipelines such as DAPL have been controversial in the last few years. High profile oil spills show how pipelines can pose risks to waterways. Activists across the country have argued that new pipelines will lead to the burning of more fossil fuels and expedite climate change.

Little wonder, then, that Sarahlynn wanted to know more about who makes decisions about pipelines in the state, and how Illinois citizens fit into a process that has consequences at both the local and national levels.

Spoiler alert: It’s currently very difficult for average citizens to participate in Illinois pipeline hearings. But as we looked at how DAPL played out here, we found people who feel there's potential that the process might open up in the long run. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline runs nearly 1,200 miles from North Dakota to Illinois. (WBEZ/Katherine Nagasawa)

We’re number one!

Before we get to who oversaw approval of DAPL’s presence in Illinois, let’s start with why it passes through the state in the first place.

It may come as a surprise to many, but Illinois is the No. 1 oil refiner in the Midwest. (It’s No. 4 in the nation if you’re wondering!) With four refineries inside its borders and several more in neighboring states, Illinois plays a big role in refining, storing and transporting U.S. oil. Some of that oil is transported by train or truck, but much of it flows through more than 7,700 miles of oil pipelines that snake through the state.

Many of those pipelines — including DAPL — run through the southern Illinois town of Patoka. The area hosts tank farms that store millions of barrels of oil, two refineries, and pipelines that fan out like spokes on a wheel. Some of the Bakken Formation oil that will come to Illinois via DAPL will be stored and off-loaded to refineries in the Midwest, but a large portion of it will hook up to another pipeline and eventually end up at refineries and outlets along the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s one of the big reasons Illinois was so important to this project: Patoka offers a convenient connection to its parent company’s existing pipeline to Texas.

Sources: US Energy Information Administration and the Pipeline Safety Trust

Who in Illinois approves pipelines like DAPL?

Four major Illinois agencies had to give the green light to the DAPL. Each one oversees a different aspect.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources looked at risks to wildlife, specifically those posed to endangered chorus frogs and fritillary butterflies. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency made sure no major historical sites would be disturbed. And the regional office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessed risks to federally protected waterways such as the Mississippi River and the Carlyle Reservoir.

But the biggest regulatory hurdle — and the step most relevant to Sarahlynn’s question — is the approval Dakota Access received from the Illinois Commerce Commission, a governor-appointed body of five commissioners tasked with overseeing consumer utility issues. Among other things, it evaluates and approves energy infrastructure projects.

When an energy company submits an application to build a pipeline, the ICC sets up hearings before an administrative law judge. At these hearings — held both in person and through briefs filed online — the company, ICC staff, commissioners and other court-approved groups present arguments for and against the project. The judge then makes a recommendation and the commissioners issue a final order.

As the administrative law judge in the DAPL case, Janis Von Qualen decided who could participate in the hearing as “intervenors.” Getting that kind of permission is complicated and time-consuming, so it’s no surprise that most intervenors are powerful industry groups, large labor unions, conservative advocacy organizations or state institutions.

What the company asked for in Illinois 

In December 2014 Dakota Access LLC (whom we will refer to by its parent company name Energy Transfer Partners or ETP) applied to the ICC for two things: the right to build 177 miles of pipeline in Illinois and eminent domain authority, or the right to use land even if landowners weren’t willing.

To get eminent domain authority, ETP had to prove to the ICC that the company was offering fair deals to landowners; it also had to show that further negotiation would be fruitless. ETP argued it was offering fair prices and genuinely involved in negotiations.

But during the 2015 hearings, the Illinois Farm Bureau argued that ETC was asking for eminent domain prematurely because negotiations hadn’t been exhausted and the project hadn’t yet been approved. The group also insisted that if ETP was going to be allowed to build, it should follow rules meant to protect the farmland.

In addition to eminent domain, ETP sought a “certificate” from the ICC for permission to build the pipeline. To get that, the company had to prove to the ICC that the project was “necessary” and would promote “public convenience.” It also had to show it had the will and the means to complete and maintain the pipeline.

The company argued that the project was “necessary” based on Midwest demand for crude oil and the relative dangers of transporting it by train and truck. It also argued that the project would produce tangible benefits for the state.

ETP senior project manager Adam Broad said he anticipated “that over 2,000 directly related construction jobs will be created in Illinois.” ETP also distributed a “Fast Facts” sheet that predicted the generation of nearly $20 million in Illinois taxes during construction.

Almost all the other groups that participated in the DAPL hearings — mostly industry organizations, a conservative advocacy group, labor unions and equipment manufacturers — supported ETP’s arguments.

Job creation and the potential for economic growth are arguments regularly made during ICC hearings, but it’s worth pointing out there’s often little follow-up on these predictions after projects are approved.

Construction of the stretch of DAPL in Illinois was complete by November of last year. When asked about the number of Illinois construction jobs that materialized from the project, ETP spokesperson Vicki Granado said: “We do not have any further numbers at this time.” She added that she didn’t know if any permanent jobs would come to Illinois because of the pipeline.  

When asked to explain how ICC members weighed economic arguments and vetted claims during the DAPL process, the agency did not allow members to participate in interviews. ICC spokesperson Marianne Manko wrote: “We believe the documentation speaks for itself and do not have further comment at this time.”

Regardless of how the agency deliberated, in December 2015 the ICC accepted proponents’ arguments and voted unanimously to grant ETP permission to build the pipeline. The agency also granted the company eminent domain authority, but the company had to agree to mitigation efforts such as a requirement to bury the pipeline 5 feet below ground.

Small newspapers in Western Illinois and Iowa reported on the approval, but Chicago media made no note of it.

Could Illinois citizens participate the next time around?

Southern Illinois resident and environmental advocate Tabitha Tripp worried that the DAPL would continue our reliance on fossil fuels and contribute to climate change. (Courtesy Nancy Porter)

Although the ICC hearings on the pipeline were dominated by interest groups, they were attended by a highly unusual participant: Southern Illinois environmental advocate Tabitha Tripp.

Tripp came to Springfield to present a petition against DAPL during a 2015 hearing. Before she left, she asked Judge Von Qualen what it would take for an average citizen to be allowed “standing” in the hearings. The judge took her to the clerk’s office where she learned she’d have to fill out mounds of paperwork, including a “brief” on why she deserved “standing.” When Von Qualen eventually granted her standing, Tripp was shocked.

“There must have been something in the brief I wrote that made her interested in what I had to say,” Tripp says of Von Qualen. “There was something that hit her heartstrings that meant something to her, that made her think that what I had to say was important, and that felt good.”

Tripp says she did her best to research the issues and file briefs and rebuttals. But her filings — especially one questioning ETP’s financial fitness to clean up spills — quickly drew the ire of ETP and some ICC staff who lobbied to have her removed and her testimony struck. They were unsuccessful.

Given that the pipeline was unanimously approved by the ICC, it could be easy to dismiss Tripp’s efforts. But some environmental activists, feel her experience has potential to change the face of future pipeline approvals in Illinois.

“As far as we know, this has never happened before,” said Dave Davis of 350Kishwaukee, an environmental advocacy group.

Davis said he’s currently using Tripp’s example to train others on how to gain standing at future hearings. His goal is to get 1,000 new Illinois intervenors, registered, trained and ready to go for the next pipeline fight in the state one that might gain more attention on the front end.

“Every time we’ve fought these kinds of projects before, it’s always been after the fact, until [Tripp],” he said. “We want to get ahead of the game now.”

This was welcome news to our questioner, Sarahlynn. When we first reported findings to her, she had been disappointed to learn how little citizen input goes into the pipeline process in general. But she was inspired by Tripp’s story.

“I love that woman,” she said. “I’m so heartened by her efforts to get her voice heard. So, that’s a wonderful silver lining among the dark clouds. ... But the fact that it was so hard makes me think our government just doesn’t want us to be part of these decisions.”

More about our questioner

Curious Citizen Sarahlynn Pablo (left) with her mom, Corazon Pablo. (Courtesy Sarahlynn Pablo)

Sarahlynn Pablo is an assistant editor for AmazingRibs.com and co-founder of Filipino Kitchen, Filipino food and culture website. She also co-founded the Kultura Festival of Filipino culture that happens in Chicago each fall.

Sarahlynn is a longtime WBEZ listener and a former consultant for sister station Vocalo. She enjoys cooking, street art, poetry and documentaries and is passionate about civil rights. She says she recently became interested in DAPL through the Standing Rock demonstrations.

“A friend and activist with Amnesty International, Kalaya'an Mendoza, first brought the issue to my attention via social media,” she wrote. “As the Thanksgiving 2016 holiday approached, I started to investigate #NoDAPL and native sovereignty more closely. The latter particularly resonated with me since I am part of the Filipinx diaspora.” (Filipinx is the non-gendered term for a person with cultural roots in the Philippines.)

Sarahlynn says this story opened her eyes to the largely unnoticed process of pipeline approvals and made her “more cognizant of the environmental stories not being told, and the role Illinoisans play in shaping our state's policy in federal matters (or not).”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ food and health reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org.

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