Science, Now + Beyond

Environmental regulations protect corporations not the environment

The regulations that are supposed to protect our environment actually let corporations get away with a lot

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive action which pushed forward the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects. People immediately freaked out, and with good reason. Both these pipelines could have serious negative impacts on the environment.

Though I knew that the pipelines would be bad for the environment I didn’t know just how bad. I got curious about what had been uncovered by the environmental assessments of the projects. Whenever a major construction project, like the building of a pipeline, is going to take place, the EPA mandates a formal assessment of the potential impacts to the environment.

The first step is a general assessment of the potential environmental impacts and whether these impacts fall within the standards laid out by the EPA. If the environmental impact is found to be within the acceptable range outlined by the EPA, a finding of ‘No Significant Environmental Impact’ will be issued. This is what happened with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

If the findings of the initial assessment show there may be significant environmental impacts, then a formal Environmental Impact Assessment will be ordered. This is what happened with the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Environmental Impact Statement, the result of the formal assessment, outlines the potential significant environmental impacts and then outlines how the pipeline project plans to mitigate these impacts.

What were the actual findings of the Environmental Assessments?

In  order to fully understand the environmental impacts of these pipelines I decided to look up the Keystone XL’s Environmental Impact Statement and the document for the Dakota Access Pipeline that outlined the finding of ‘No Significant Environmental Impact”. Both of these documents are public records.

I’m not going to lie, it was some dense and boring reading. But I kept reading because I knew it was really important to understand how these pipelines are actually going to affect the environment, because I don’t trust a thing the engineers or the government has to say on the matter. The money shows their motivations are biased.

After slogging through these documents one thing became very clear to me: the regulations that are supposed to protect our environment actually give corporations a lot of leeway to destroy the environment.

It would take forever to run through every environmental impact and all the regulations involved, so I’ll give you the gist of it. The environmental regulations that apply to building these pipelines outline ‘acceptable thresholds’ for environmental harm. This means that no matter what, the construction of these pipelines will cause environmental harm, but the government is willing to accept these harms because they fall within an arbitrarily determined ‘acceptable threshold’.

How much environmental harm is the government willing to accept?

Both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines will intersect with major water sources. Pollution from the actual construction will contaminate these water sources. Both of the environmental assessments admit that breakage of the pipeline would spill oil in to these water sources, but the reports state that a break is highly unlikely. Unfortunately, government data proves that this is not true; pipelines break pretty frequently. So, there is a high likelihood of the contamination of water sources.

Both environmental assessments also state that wastes from construction would seep in to the groundwater and that a breakage would contaminate the groundwater. Again, the documents state that this impact is likely to be negligible, but we’re still talking about contaminated groundwater, which would effect vegetation growth, which would, in turn, effect animals consuming this vegetation.

Construction of the pipelines will destroy local vegetation at the construction sites. The environmental assessments state that vegetation would be replanted and restored to its pre-construction state, but the damage will already be done. Even minor changes to an ecosystem have ripple effects for years to come. The temporary loss of vegetation will certainly change the ecosystem.

Both of the pipelines will cross the habitats, mating grounds, and migration paths of multiple threatened and endangered species. Members of these endangered and threatened species will likely die as a result of the actual construction. More will die from habitat destruction and lack of resources along their migration routes. The species whose mating grounds will be crossed by the pipelines will likely produce less offspring.

The emissions from the construction vehicles and the ongoing operations of the pipeline will contribute to the buildup of greenhouse gasses, which are the leading cause of climate change. The environmental assessments say that the emissions will be minimal, but with the state of climate change currently, any increase in emissions is a threat.

The federal environmental regulations that are supposed to protect the environment deem all of these impacts within their ‘acceptable threshold’ because they won’t be widespread. Their assessments conclude that the effects will not be great enough to do permanent environmental harm. They say the environment will recover, but will it? Even what the government considers to be minimal impacts will change the ecosystems, which could have long lasting effects on the environment.

Are companies held accountable for violating environmental regulations?

Even if the impacts end up being great, the companies constructing the pipelines will hardly be held accountable. Most of the consequences for damage to the environment by a corporation are fines. Most of the corporations embarking on massive construction projects like these pipelines have more than enough funding to pay off fines, so there’s really no incentive to follow environmental regulations in the first place.

In the end, the regulations that are supposed to protect the environment have a lot of wiggle room, and there are no sufficient deterrents to violating these regulations. All the regulations really do is encourage corporations embarking on large construction projects to change their project planning to minimize the environmental impact.

This may have been good enough in the past, but it isn’t anymore. The environment is in a dire state right now, and negative impacts need to be prevented, not minimized. The construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines will negatively impact the environment in a number of ways, and their continued construction should be prevented at all costs.