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Trump’s Friends Get Rich Off Oil Boom as Industry Limits Info on Pipeline Worker Injuries & Deaths

Web ExclusiveSeptember 12, 2018
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We continue our interview with longtime oil and energy journalist, Antonia Juhasz, about her explosive new report, “Death on the Dakota Access: An Investigation into the Deadly Business of Building Oil and Gas Pipelines.” She explains how the deaths of two men who worked on the Dakota Access pipeline led her to examine how the massive oil and natural gas boom has generated some of the deadliest jobs in the country.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation on “Death on the Dakota Access: An investigation into the deadly business of building oil and gas pipelines,” the headline of a new investigation by Antonia Juhasz, a longtime oil and energy journalist. Published today in the Pacific Standard magazine, the piece looks at the deaths of two men who worked on the DAPL—Dakota Access pipeline—and the massive oil and natural gas boom that’s generated some of the deadliest jobs in the country. So we continue with Antonia Juhasz.

Antonia, before we go back to the deaths and how you uncovered the corporate companies that are responsible, give us a map of the Dakota Access pipeline and what you learned about the history of it and the history of oil exploration in this country.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Sure. So, starting in 2000 approximately, with the Bush administration, we saw a real lessening of regulations and oversight over oil and gas drilling and also an increased access to where drilling could take place. That coincided with new developments in fracking technology, which is—where oil has historically generally been found in what is somewhat easily referred to as reservoirs of oil under the ground, oil that needs to be fracked is found in shale rocks that need to be blasted, and they’re blasted with a water-chemical cocktail using essentially an underground cannon that travels down and horizontally to blast open the rock to release the oil or natural gas.

Advances in that technology, combined with this deregulatory freedom, led to the start of a dramatic boom in oil and natural gas production in the United States. One of the places where that boom was most aggressive was in North Dakota, which increased from 2006 to 2016 the amount of oil produced, almost all by fracking, by 10 times the amount. And the heart of that area is a place called the Bakken, named after the farmer whose land it was discovered over, Henry Bakken. And the Bakken is a formation of shale rock where a great deal of this production takes place.

Getting that oil out of North Dakota has been difficult for producers. They first started putting it on trains. But what’s unique about Bakken oil is that it is highly volatile. It’s more like a gasoline than it is like an oil. And it turns out the trains derail a lot, and when they derail carrying Bakken, they had a tendency to explode. That is a problem. Pipelines also, of course, have myriads of problems, which you’ve covered here extensively on the show.

But getting that pipeline built, the Dakota Access pipeline, was a core goal of producers in North Dakota. And the pipeline originates in Tioga, North Dakota, travels through South Dakota, Iowa, to Illinois, where it then connects with a second pipeline, another Energy Transfer Partners pipeline, that carries it on to Texas. Combined, they’re the Bakken pipeline. There’s now an additional leg that’s being constructed called the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which carries that up to Louisiana.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go there, to Louisiana, the 163-mile Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana, which would run through the nation’s largest wetland and swamp, faced protests, legal challenges to halt construction. And just this past Monday, a judge was scheduled to hear the case of landowners who say the pipeline would cross their property illegally. But just before the hearing, Energy Transfer Partners agreed to stop construction on a key section of the route—Energy Transfer Partners, of course, the same company behind the Dakota Access pipeline. This comes as police arrested four people last month as they held a peaceful sit-in protest at a construction site. They face felony charges under a harsh new anti-protest law signed by Louisiana’s governor earlier this year. This is water protector Cherri Foytlin, speaking as she was tackled and arrested by police.

WATER PROTECTOR: Stop choking her!

CHERRI FOYTLIN: We need you here now! We need you now!

AMY GOODMAN: So, here you have the water protectors being arrested. But explain what this court battle is about and what’s happening in Louisiana.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Well, so this is a continued extension of Dakota Access pipeline. It is the same pipeline. Continued up to Louisiana is the goal, through the bayous, beautiful areas of Louisiana, an area that I got to know, and Cherri, who is being arrested in that piece, covering the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. This is an area where there is a lot of knowledge about the harms associated with the oil industry and concern about construction of this pipeline, and they have been trying to stop it all along the way of construction. And the only reason to carry it from Texas to Louisiana, by the way, is just to reach an additional access export point so that both Texas and Louisiana can cash in, primarily on petrochemicals.

And in the opposition to the pipeline, there are two sisters whose land they denied access to Energy Transfer Partners to build the pipeline, and those sisters have—but Energy Transfer went through their land anyway. So the sisters said, “You’re not—we didn’t give you permission. You’re not supposed to be here.” And they fought it in court, and those sisters, teamed with the water protectors trying to stop the pipeline along the way, have at this point succeeded in at least delaying the completion of the pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, let’s go back to the deaths on the pipeline. You have September 2nd, 2016, two men on either end of the pipeline dying. They’re pipeline workers. Now, it’s very hard, as you point out in this piece and in the first part of our interview, to get information on the deaths of workers, morbidity or mortality. But explain what happened with the second young man you investigated and what information you were able to get and not get.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: So, Troy Dolen, who also died in construction of the pipeline, 43 years old, father of two daughters, married. So, his death—there had been one reported death in the construction of the pipeline. Finding the second death was very difficult. What I learned was because Precision Pipeline was the subcontractor that was doing the hiring, I started looking through all of their OSHA reports of fatalities anywhere in the country. I then started investigating each of those fatalities to try and identify what pipeline the companies were working on—the workers were working on. I found deaths in each of the states.

When I found a death in Illinois, I then went through press reports to see if I could match the location of the death with a potential pipeline. I then found the death of a worker reported in local news, matched that with a map of where Dakota Access pipeline went, looked like it was probably at the same place, then contacted the local OSHA administrator, who told me in an interview, yes, he was working on Dakota Access pipeline, and then, through Freedom of Information Act reports, was able to confirm that that was the pipeline that he was working on.

But it wasn’t written anywhere, and because it was Precision Pipeline—they work on lots of pipelines—nowhere did it say in those published reports, public reports, Energy Transfer Partners, Dakota Access pipeline. There would be no way, if you’re just doing a search, which I’ve tried to do, on Dakota Access pipeline, to learn through public records injuries or fatalities associated with the pipeline. You have to try and find each subcontracting company.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is this so critical?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: I mean, understanding how dangerous these jobs are is critical to understanding if we should be doing them or not. So there’s lots of questions as to the costs associated with continuing to run on a fossil fuel-based economy. And there are—we know already that the extraction of oil and natural gas is an extremely deadly enterprise to its workers. We know that for those people who live where oil and gas is explored for, produced, transported, refined, disposed of, used, the many harms associated with being exposed to fossil fuels. And understanding the impacts on the workers who also have to work in that transportation sector, the building of oil and natural gas pipelines, is critical to understanding the nature of this industry and this enterprise of using fossil fuels. And learning that it is in fact one of the deadliest jobs in the United States and that this wasn’t known before, because no one had run the information—it’s very difficult to find—I felt, was critical.

And then the conclusion that I came to through that reporting was, you know, at the heart of this resistance that we’re talking about is the call for water protection—water protectors is what the resisters call themselves, not protesters, and that “water is life” is a key rallying cry in that resistance—and that the skills involved in building a pipeline are the same regardless of what runs through it, but the safety for those around the pipeline and those building the pipeline increases significantly if it’s not carrying oil and natural gas through it, and that Flint, Michigan, brought home to many of us the mass necessity across the United States for an investment in new safe water pipelines and infrastructure, and that it would be the same unions, the same skills, the same workers who could transition in a green energy economy from building oil and natural gas pipelines. If we had a massive public investment in water pipelines, they could themselves also then become water protectors.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were talking with the oil and gas workers’ union. What did they say about this?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: I didn’t ask them about the transition to water pipelines because I wasn’t there at that point. I would love to know what they think about it. When I was talking with them, I was getting a tour of where Dakota Access pipeline was constructed, excellent lessons in what it means to build an oil and natural gas pipeline, which is an incredibly complex, dangerous job, and insights into the industry and and their concerns over how the industry is changing, with one piece being the deregulatory agenda of the Trump administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, in Part 1 of our conversation, we talked about the side piece you did for Pacific Standard, “Trump and Friends Cash In: Members and backers of the Trump administration are profiting from DAPL while scheming to make even bigger bucks shipping oil and petrochemicals overseas.” We talked about the chairman and CEO of Continental Resources, Harold Hamm, who was standing next to President Trump when he gave his speech in Mandan, North Dakota, celebrating pulling out of the Paris accord, standing in front of an oil refinery. We talked about the “middleman,” you called, Kelcy Warren, chair and CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, which owns the Dakota Access pipeline. Player, you say, Wilbur Ross, secretary of commerce. Very briefly, say once again his significance, and then go to President Trump himself, what he has to gain, how you talk about him cashing in.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, so, I think Wilbur Ross is a critical piece of this puzzle, one, because he continued to have holdings in his shipping companies after becoming secretary of commerce. An exposé was going to reveal those continued holdings. When he found out about that exposé through the Paradise Papers, he knew it was going to be exposed that he still had these holdings, so he short-sold his stock the day before the piece came out, so that he profited on the exposure of his holdings in the press. He is a piece of work and definitely one of my favorite people to try and expose in the Trump administration.

But in addition to buying heavily into bankrupt oil and gas companies, including in the Bakken when he was the head of his company, WL Ross & Co., he also moved into shipping, and those shipping interests involved shipping oil, natural gas and petrochemicals. And those companies have contracts in particular with China, but also Russia and other countries, to ship the components of petrochemicals, which are derived from oil and natural gas, from the United States abroad.

And Energy Transfer Partners is not only building pipelines but building the infrastructure with which to transform these products into the basics of petrochemicals to then be shipped in Ross’s fleet, with contracts—sorry—from China.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for example, the fracked oil in the Dakota Access pipeline, which makes its way to the Gulf, from there it goes—

ANTONIA JUHASZ: It gets put into a refinery, or what’s called a cracker, to be shifted into these components of what are used to make plastics, and then shipped with contracts to China and other countries. And so that’s a massive infrastructure. Wilbur Ross’s former company’s estimated $100 billion investment is being planned just in the U.S. Gulf Coast, just in the next decade, on petrochemicals.

So then if we look at Trump—so there are other members of the Trump administration, Trump backers, that have been invested both in companies invested in Dakota Access pipeline but also in the companies in the Bakken that are profiting from the completion of the pipeline. Trump himself—I think it’s been well reported—when he came into office, had investments in many oil companies, including Energy Transfer Partners, including Phillips 66, a partner in Dakota Access pipeline.

Less well-reported has been his hedge fund investments. So he has hedge fund investments with Paulson & Co., and Paulson is a former economic adviser to the Trump campaign. Also his investments include oil and gas investments, including Oasis Petroleum, which is a big beneficiary of completion of DAPL. Trump also has investments in BlackRock hedge funds which are invested in oil and gas.

Trump announced publicly that he had divested from all of his corporate holdings, although he’s never documented that divestment. He’s never said anything about his hedge fund investments, so it’s quite possible that he still holds those investments and is therefore potentially immediately profiting off of not only the completion of Dakota Access pipeline but the boom that it’s helped created in oil and gas production.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you talk about Gary Cohn, Gary Cohn who’s the former president and CEO of Goldman Sachs, former National Economic Council director, chief economic adviser to Trump, left—is maybe the Woodward whisperer—

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, most likely.

AMY GOODMAN: —not clear—for his new book, Bob Woodward, so being considered by many a hero. But talk about where he fits into this picture.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: So, Gary Cohn may be one of the men who can be most credited, when he was at Goldman, of developing how the modern banks profit from oil and gas, in a myriad of ways, including having banks become essentially—Goldman was called, when he was there, a “hedge fund in drag”—heavily invested directly in oil and gas, including in infrastructure. They owned Kinder Morgan pipeline for a time, owned refineries, owned oil and gas fields. He helped develop profiting off of oil and gas from the perspective of futures trading. While at Goldman, Goldman backed DAPL companies during the key construction period of Dakota Access pipeline.

And while he had his stint within the Trump administration as national economic adviser, he passed what I think he went in there to do, which was the tax reform bill, a massive payoff to the wealthiest Americans. But in a previous piece I did for Pacific Standard magazine, I found that the tax bill alone included, at minimum, a one-time payment of $25 billion to the oil and gas industry through new tax breaks. And that was just a one-time payment, not even looking forward. And Cohn has really helped establish within the Trump administration the things that have worked really well and have been very successful, which is the aggressive deregulatory agenda, and helped see that come into place in different agencies.

And the places where that has come into place that affects oil and natural gas construction is at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is basically described right now as an empty enforcer, with key positions empty, people retiring, reductions in their budget and a removal of regulations that were put in place both to make companies accurately keep track of injuries and illnesses and fatalities, and how that information is then made publicly available. So, one of the things that happened while I was writing this piece, which I’ve been working on for a year and a half, in the switch from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, was data I was following on fatalities in industry and injuries was disappearing from publicly available data sources, and that was because of a change in rules of what needs to be reported, when and how, to the public, under the Trump administration.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we begin to wrap up, we’re here in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. That’s Governor Brown’s summit on climate, seen as the green—the major leading elected official opposing the Trump administration. Yet many people, in the tens of thousands, who marched on Saturday were talking about Governor Brown’s addiction to fracked oil and not being able to—not being willing to let it go. Give us a big picture now—California, a major oil producer—of what is happening here and what you think needs to happen. You’ve been looking at this issue for years.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: California is one of the original oil-producing states in the entire nation, where Standard Oil Company of California is one of the original Standard Oil companies that eventually became Chevron, which is of course one of the largest oil companies in the world, based here in California and has been since its origins. We’re still the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the country. Most of that oil production takes place in Kern County in the Central Valley, and also we still have offshore drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara, and those are the major sources of oil.

That production has been going on for a very long time. It’s been on a steady decline since the '80s, so you see a steady trajectory of downward production, basically because there's just less oil to get from the same sources. That steady decline in oil production is something that advocates are saying, “Let’s just move more quickly on that decline.” And so, under Jerry Brown’s leadership, his most recent service as governor, he has okayed, or his administration has okayed, 20,000 new leases for oil and natural gas extraction in the state. So continuing production has been a key part of his administration.

He has focused on emissions reduction. And emissions reductions are important, but if we only focus on emissions reductions, we’re not even going to get to the Paris commitments. It’s not enough. So the lesson learned—I mean, if you look back at the history, for example, of oil companies who have been doing research into climate change for some time—and we learned that ExxonMobil, back in the '70s, they uncovered that 80 percent of fossil fuels would need to stay in the ground to avert the worst outcomes of the climate crisis—ExxonMobil, in the 1970s. That's where we are now. We understand that the vast majority of fossil fuels would need to stay in the ground to meet the Paris climate commitments and to avert the worst of climate crisis.

California seems like a really logical place to start. We have a rich, wealthy economy. We have lots of other sources of income. We’re already on a downward decline. And Jerry Brown has said that his main opposition to keeping fossil fuels in the state in the ground would be a potential—or, he would say an outcome would be an increase in gasoline prices in the state. And that’s a foil, because if you look at the trajectory of the downward production in oil in California, it has not been associated with an upward trajectory of gasoline prices in the state. Rather, gasoline prices in the state move with the price of oil nationally and internationally, which is not based on the production of oil in California.

AMY GOODMAN: So, with all of your work and research over these years, writing several books, going down to the Gulf, deeply investigating the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, at this point, what do you think needs to happen?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: I think it’s very clear that we need to embrace keeping fossil fuels in the ground. It’s the most obvious outcome. It’s been obvious to the oil companies, as I’ve said, for decades. It has been obvious to people who live and work and breathe where oil production takes place. And it’s where we’re headed anyway.

We obviously have very meaningful alternatives for energy production for transportation. We don’t need billions more plastics. Our oceans certainly don’t need billions more plastics, and nor do the health of consumers require billions more in plastics. And I think that that’s just a difficult outcome that a very wealthy industry is going to have to take into account.

The reason for writing this article—I didn’t even set out to—I didn’t realize how dangerous this industry was to oil and gas pipeline construction workers. The reason for writing this article was to learn more. And I did. And what I learned was further information that supports that this is an industry whose time is past, it’s dangerous to everyone involved, and the benefits are dramatically dwindling. And if we can turn jobs that are dangerous to workers and the people around them into jobs that are protectors of our water and our health, that seems like a really logical step to take.

AMY GOODMAN: Like building the water—rebuilding the water infrastructure, the water pipeline infrastructure, of this country.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, a desperately deteriorating infrastructure. So, of course, pipelines are built by private—oil and gas pipelines are built by private companies. Water pipelines are built by the public. So, we have a deteriorating pipeline system. Water pipelines in the United States are often over 100 years old. They are rapidly eroding and deteriorating. They’re made of lead, which is one of the reasons for the problem in Flint. And that is a necessity. We need to invest in public infrastructure.

Trump came into office saying he was going invest in public infrastructure. We need that. He hasn’t done that. And that not only is something we need for clean water, it’s something we need for jobs. And using those very critical skills, those trade skills that are building the oil natural gas pipelines, and using it to rebuild our water pipelines, to me, makes an enormous amount of sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Antonia Juhasz, we want to thank you so much for being with us, oil and energy journalist. Her new report, published today by Pacific Standard, is headlined “Death on the Dakota Access: An investigation into the deadly business of building oil and gas pipelines.” We will link to it at democracynow.org. Also go to democracynow.org for Part 1 of our conversation with Antonia. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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