The true price of anti-pipeline politics

The United States is on the verge of an energy crisis of its own making

The United States is on the verge of an energy crisis of its own making. 

The price of oil recently hit a seven-year high on the back of rising geopolitical tensions in Europe and the Middle East. With tensions rising between Ukraine and Russia, and no end in sight to existing supply chain disruptions, industry analysts expect prices to soar to over $100 a barrel before the end of the year. 

If they are correct, inflation and economic uncertainty will be driven even higher than they are today, as will the dollar value of our energy imports from strategic adversaries. Unfortunately for the United States, this is a crisis of its own making.


While all the blame for foreign instability or the lasting effects of the pandemic is not on the Biden administration, our country’s current predicament would be far more manageable if its policy toolkit wasn’t constrained by artificial controversy surrounding the critical infrastructure of our national energy system, especially pipelines.

Energy infrastructure is simultaneously one of the most divisive and least understood topics in American politics. For that reason, a brief overview is warranted. 

Oil and gas pipelines serve the same function as the body’s circulatory system, carrying the compounds that heat our homes and fuel our economy across the country. Although alternative transportation methods exist, in most situations pipelines are the safest and most efficient means of moving energy from Point A to Point B.

Given that energy infrastructure is essential to controlling prices and mitigating supply challenges, it is crucial that its construction is protected from interference.

For a pipeline to be built, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a nonpartisan organization tasked with evaluating public works, must first determine that 1) it can be constructed and operated safely without significant environmental impact and 2) no superior alternative exists. If a comprehensive review of the project by the Corps cannot verify that these and other requirements are met, then construction is not allowed to proceed.

Despite the existence of an effective, rigorous regulatory system, pipelines continue to be vilified by a small but vocal group of activists as environmental monstrosities built without regard for local communities and their surrounding ecosystems. This narrative and its consequences are encapsulated by the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), critical oil infrastructure that has operated safely for years, has overwhelming public support, and is already the most studied and regulated pipeline in US history.

Legal opposition to DAPL has centered on two arguments: that the environmental review process conducted by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers professionals was flawed, and that community engagement leading up to construction was insufficient. Because these claims are inherently subjective, politics and fringe opinions rooted in distortions of reality can penetrate the regulatory process. As a result, the Corps must now produce an additional statement on the environmental impact of DAPL, despite its years-long safe operations record.

DAPL’s operator is confident that the final environmental impact statement will reinforce the Corps’ earlier assessments. However, its opponents’ success in threatening the pipeline for the better part of a decade, leveraging sympathetic and non-expert judges, has created a dangerous precedent. 


Without confidence that our judicial system will uphold the integrity of the regulatory process and dismiss spurious legal challenges, energy companies are now far less likely to invest in similar projects. Besides creating local jobs, generating tax revenue, bolstering the national economy, and ensuring the reliable delivery of energy to consumer markets, pipelines like DAPL reduce our dependence on foreign oil as well as our vulnerability to supply shortages like the current one. 

All of these benefits and more are at risk of being lost unless something is changed.

Given that energy infrastructure is essential to controlling prices and mitigating supply challenges, it is crucial that its construction is protected from interference. To that end, the Supreme Court should reverse the lower court decision requiring additional environmental review of DAPL and bring six years of undue controversy to a close.


At the onset of the pandemic, pipeline opponents celebrated the crash in global demand for oil and gas as a death knell for America’s energy industry. Now, with prices soaring, it is undeniable that demand will remain high for the foreseeable future. 

Instead of allowing activists to hijack America’s judicial system in a misguided attempt to force a premature transition to renewables, President Biden should use this moment to revert to an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy like the one endorsed by his Democratic predecessor that affirms the importance of oil, natural gas and their essential infrastructure. At a minimum, current regulatory processes should be insulated against activist litigation. Otherwise, $100 a barrel may soon seem like a bargain. And with all the challenges before us, let’s not add to that list unnecessarily.

Tom Magness is a strategic adviser to the Grow America’s Infrastructure Now (GAIN). He formerly served as a commander in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.