BISMARCK — The North Dakota Public Service Commission took a step toward voting on the proposed expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline by not requesting any additional documents from the pipeline operator at its Thursday, Jan. 23 work session on the subject.

The three-member regulatory board must consider whether to allow pipeline operator Energy Transfer to build a $40 million pump station in Emmons County that would make it possible for the company to increase the capacity of the pipeline from 570,000 barrels to 1.1 million barrels (23.9 million gallons to 46.2 million gallons) per day.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wants the commission to ask the Texas-based company to hand over documents relating to the risk of an oil spill, but commissioners indicated Thursday that they likely have enough information from the company to move closer to a decision.

Commissioners agreed to either hold another work session or vote on the proposed project in a formal meeting after receiving a draft of the order from staff. Commissioner Randy Christmann said a second work session might not be necessary since the answers to the commission's outstanding questions are unlikely to be "big game-changers."

The company butted heads with the tribe over the proposed expansion at a marathon November hearing in Linton. The tribe intervened in the case because it says adding capacity to the pipeline could increase the risk and severity of potential leaks. The company says expansion would help meet consumer demand for North Dakota crude oil without posing any greater risk to the environment or people living along the pipeline.

Attorneys for Dakota Access Pipeline operator Energy Transfer prepare for a hearing in Linton, N.D. on Nov. 13. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Attorneys for Dakota Access Pipeline operator Energy Transfer prepare for a hearing in Linton, N.D. on Nov. 13. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Commissioners addressed several of the concerns raised by the tribe with Director of Public Utilities Patrick Fahn and commission attorney Zachary Pelham. One of the tribe's main arguments against the expansion was the idea that a "surge" would be more devastating, and potentially, more likely to occur. A surge can result from a sudden change in pressure in a pipeline, and if severe enough, it can cause the pipeline to burst. Witnesses for the company testified that the phenomenon occurs very infrequently.

Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said the hours of testimony on the topic provided enough information for the commission to properly consider the risk of a surge. Company executives testified under oath that a surge analysis has been performed, but the commission has not seen it. Fedorchak also noted that the company hired an industry-leading expert to look into the issue and has vowed to follow any recommendations.

"From my perspective, the record is really thorough where it stands on this issue, and I don't feel like we need to see the surge analysis," Fedorchak said.

The tribe's attorney, Tim Purdon, said he was still hopeful the commission would ask for that document and others relating to an updated "worse-case" oil spill and a hydraulic profile of the pipeline. Purdon said the commission cannot adequately assess whether the proposed expansion could have negative effects on the people and environment of North Dakota without seeing documents.

Attorney Tim Purdon (left) and Standing Rock Tribal Chariman Mike Faith speak before a hearing in Linton, N.D. on Nov. 13, 2019. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Attorney Tim Purdon (left) and Standing Rock Tribal Chariman Mike Faith speak before a hearing in Linton, N.D. on Nov. 13, 2019. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Pelham said considering some of the issues raised by the tribe may be outside of the commission's scope. He mentioned that requiring the company to adhere to measures beyond federal regulations could prompt a legal challenge from the company.

The original $3.8 billion pipeline project, which crosses under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, prompted protests from tribal members and climate activists in 2016 and 2017. The 1,172-mile underground pipeline transports crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to central Illinois, from which it is shipped to Midwest and Gulf Coast refineries.