Thursday, November 3, 2016

How Safe is the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Let me just start off by saying that the title of this post is a real question. I’m not being coy. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not going to surprise the reader with “Completely safe, so suck it!” or “Not safe at all, so suck it!” But I’m not just asking for me. I’d like to get others to consider the question. Perhaps failing to side with the “right” team will make me the target of internet outrage, but I’m going to try anyway and I will simply ignore the unreasonable people who don’t like to think about trade-offs and relative risks. This is going to be another post where I’m not arguing for a conclusion, I’m just trying to articulate a trade-off.

I recently saw some maps of the pipeline.  It was a line extending from North Dakota to South Dakota to Iowa to Illinois, with some pink shading around it to indicate what communities might be affected by it. Someone took the pink shading to mean, “These regions are threatened by the pipeline!” but I found this to be misleading without having any estimates of 1) the risk that the pipeline would leak and 2) the harm that would be unleashed if it were to leak. You could just as easily draw a line extending from one major airport to the next implying that everyone in the path is in imminent danger of having an airplane fall on their heads, implicitly multiplying this by the millions of flights that take place each year. Of course the chance of an airplane crashing into you is so vanishingly small as to be irrelevant, but still non-zero. I don’t think anyone takes seriously the notion that we should ban air travel because it imposes such an irrelevant cost to third-parties. We all just accept that the economic benefit of air travel trumps the minor risk that an airplane will kill someone who didn’t consent to the risk (as opposed to the passengers and flight crew, who knowingly consent to the risk).

Now, certainly it’s wrong for me to pull out a fully loaded six-shooter, point it at your head and pull the trigger. It’s almost-as-surely wrong to pull out a six-shooter with one bullet in a random chamber, point it at your head and pull the trigger. (I should say 1/6th as surely, but still pretty damn surely!) Nobody tolerates this kind of risk. But what if the gun has ten thousand chambers and only one bullet? A million chambers? A trillion? And the gun-slinger derives some significant benefit from pulling the trigger? Suppose that in that one-in-ten thousand event, the results aren’t fatal but just annoying or costly. Maybe you don’t get your brains blown out, but simply take one in the shoulder. Or perhaps, in the event that the gun fires, you have the opportunity to pay some price to avoid taking the bullet at all, and in fact perhaps the gun-slinger can pre-commit to paying said cost in the event of a firing. (I am stealing the “million-chamber revolver” example from many people, but I believe I first heard of it from David Friedman. Couldn’t tell you which book it came from, though.)

Some people are arguing that total aggregate risk of oil spills will *decrease* if the pipeline gets built. Supposedly pipelines are less prone to oil spills than the alternative: moving oil tank cars by rail. This seems reasonable enough. In the past few years there have been plenty of high-profile oil spills and even explosions of oil moved by rail. If this view is correct, we’re not just arbitrarily subjecting an Indian nation to risk, we’re re-directing risk that is currently incurred elsewhere, in fact *reducing* the overall risk (according to this argument). If that’s true, the map in the link above should be compared to another map, showing all the routes by which oil will travel across the country by rail if we don’t build the pipeline. Perhaps they can be color-coded to indicate risk-per-mile at each point, and perhaps some clever person can sum up the total risk by doing a path integral along both lines. We could see which map gives us the greater overall risk. That would give us the proper comparison. I’d like to have that information before I hitch my cart to any bandwagon, but I have yet to see it. (Once again, maybe it’s out there and I just haven’t seen it. I’m raising a question here, not answering it.) In my gun-slinger example, perhaps he’s not simply pulling out a new gun, but decommissioning several existing guns so as to reduce the overall risk. Yeah, it sucks if the new gun is aimed in *your* face, but to block all such projects because “The new safer gun is pointed in *my* face!” would seem to block all progress made by mankind in the past thousand years. A “we’re all in this together” attitude would imply that we accept these kinds of changes *in general* knowing that sometimes they will hurt us but on balance they will benefit us (dramatically!).

I’m a property rights enthusiast. If someone says “No, you can’t build on my property, no matter how much you pay me,” my instinct is to say this person gets veto power, no matter how seemingly unreasonable he is being. On the other hand, I think it would be wrong to allow the property owner to say, “You can’t do anything on *your* property either, because there is a small chance that it will negatively impact *my* property.” In this second case, the unreasonable property owner is imposing costs on *his* neighbor by hindering the neighbor’s use of his own property. (Paging Ronald Coase.)  According to the map in this article, which is quite sympathetic to the Standing Rock tribe, the pipeline goes just north of their reservation. The tribe’s complaint is that an oil spill will poison their water supply, not that it crosses their property. So they don't get to play the "You're on my property" trump card. I think that whether they have a legitimate case against the pipeline depends on how risky an oil leak is, and how damaging it is if one happens. Who I should side with depends on the answers to these questions. If I find out that the pipeline is effectively pointing a six-shooter with a single bullet at the heads of some innocent people, without even compensating them for the risk, I will be vehemently opposed to the pipeline and express my total sympathy for the tribe and the protesters. But if it’s more like aiming a million-chamber revolver filled with one or two rubber bullets at a few random people, all while fully agreeing to compensate for any harm done, then my sympathies will end up lying with Dakota Access, LCC.

My frustration here isn’t that people have chosen the wrong side. There exists an intellectual framework for thinking about these kinds of pollution problems (“externalities” in economic speak); my frustration is that nobody seems to be engaging with it. Everything about this story that has crawled across my news-feed has been terribly emotional. Aim higher, folks. Engage with the intellect a little. If I hear a compelling case that this is a significant risk of enormous harm, I will become very passionately anti-Dakota Access. 

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