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'A Living, Breathing Movement': An Introduction to the Dakota Access Pipeline Issue

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Construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) began in July 2014. Starting in the Bakken oil fields in northwestern North Dakota, the proposed 1,172- mile long pipeline is poised to transport 450,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil per day to Patoka, Illinois, before being shipped to refineries on the Gulf Coast. In a bid to avoid federal environmental review, the pipeline has mostly been routed through private land by Dakota Access LLC, a subsidiary of Texas based Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), and its partners.

The pipeline will cross Lake Oahe, Lake Sakakewea and the Missouri River, among many other streams and rivers. This route not only directly crosses the Standing Rock Reservation’s main water source, it also passes through — and has thus destroyed — Native burial grounds and sacred sites. ETP expects the pipeline to start delivering oil on May 14.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency who manages the easement next to the Missouri River where the last section of the pipeline was to be built, organized a hearing to discuss the easement in April 2016. They encountered  near-unanimous opposition from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Despite this and intense opposition from native and indigenous communities and nations from across the country and around the world, in July the Army Corps of Engineers approved three highly contentious easements, including ancestral burial sites for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

Let’s zoom out for some historical context. In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie bequeathed the land beneath the pipeline to the Sioux nations. Eleven years later, under the auspices of The Great Sioux War, which was instigated and subsequently won by the U.S. government, a new “treaty” was “negotiated” with the Sioux under threat of starvation. Under this new agreement, the Sioux relinquished significant portions of the Fort Laramie Treaty land, including the Black Hills of South Dakota, where many white immigrants were seeking gold.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1980 found that the Black Hills had been unfairly seized from the Sioux. The U.S. government was ordered to compensate the Sioux for this but the Sioux refused financial recompense, preferring instead to pursue ownership (or co-ownership) of the land itself. Although much of American law is still founded on the principle of the “doctrine of discovery,” which holds that European Christians were eligible to lay claim to land if they were the first to document it, modern federal law does recognize the barbarism of colonial land grabs. As reparation, specific rights are now guaranteed for Native communities.

Water Protector rides an Appaloosa at Standing Rock | Photo: Dark Sevier, some rights reserved
Water Protector rides an Appaloosa at Standing Rock | Photo: Dark Sevier, some rights reserved

The “right to be consulted” is one of these: whenever a federal agency has to approve or execute a construction project, regardless of whether it is on or near reservation land, it must consult with Native nations and engage with them as representatives of sovereign nations. In particular, this federal law unequivocally states that “regulations require Federal agencies to consult with Indian tribes when they attach religious and cultural significance to a historic property regardless of the location of that property.”  

This consultation is supposed to be conducted in a collaborative way, not in an ushering in of representatives of Native nations at the last minute as an inconvenient formality in order to get the green light for a construction project.

And it is precisely this right to be consulted that the Standing Rock Sioux say was completely overlooked; especially in light of the fact that important archeological evidence had been found pointing to the existence of ancient and sacred burial sites lying in the path of the pipeline. Indeed, the tribe and their lawyers allege that less than 24 hours after this evidence was presented, construction took place on those very same sites, likely destroying them for good.

The desecration of an indigenous nation’s sacred and historical sites is one reason for the tribe's forceful opposition to the DAPL. The other is the very real threat to their water supply, the Missouri River, being poisoned by the pipeline. Not only is Bakken crude fracked, it is also highly volatile. There is thus an extremely high likelihood of the pipeline leaking. Indeed, in a safety alert to the public in January 2014, the US Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) warns that:

“…recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. Based on preliminary inspections conducted after recent derailments in North Dakota, Alabama, and Lac-Megantic, Quebec involving Bakken crude oil, PHMSA is reinforcing the requirement to properly test, characterize, classify, and where appropriate sufficiently degasify [Bakken oil] prior to and during transportation.”

The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of projects that propose fossil fuel infrastructure, like the DAPL, if those agencies are involved in the project in any way. DAPL’s need for an easement through Army Corps lands triggers this obligation under NEPA. In spite of this, and in direct violation of federal law, construction on the pipeline has begun without the completion of a full Environmental Impact Statement.

A demonstrator opposes shipping Bakken crude through her community | Photo: Overpass Light Brigade, some rights reserved
A demonstrator sums up the dangers of shipping Bakken crude.   | Photo: Overpass Light Brigade, some rights reserved

In addition to this, if the pipeline ever leaked or broke, the Army Corps would be in breach of the Clean Water Act, especially as they did not partner with the Standing Rock Sioux in the permitting process for the pipeline. This issue of a community’s water supply being poisoned has also created a growing opposition movement to the pipeline in Iowa.

Of course, we are now living in a different time. Federal laws and organizations that had been put in place to safeguard the environment and enforce regulation on the fossil fuel industry are being systematically dismantled. President Trump has personally invested over $1.5 million in companies building the DAPL. In return, one of Energy Transfer Partners’ CEOs made $150,000 in contributions to the Trump campaign. Unsurprisingly, in January of this year, Trump signed an executive order urging the continuation not only of the DAPL but also of the Keystone Access Pipeline.

arrests standing rock
Arrests at the Standing Rock encampments in 2016 | Photo: Democracy Now

And in February, opposition encampments at Cannonball, ND, consisting of Native tribes and activists — aptly called the “water protectors” — from all over the country and indeed, the globe, were  forced to disband after months of brave resistance in freezing temperatures, and in the face of violence and brutality from the authorities. More than 3000 veterans, both Native and non-Native, had deployed to these camps in solidarity with the water protectors.

DAPL proponents are now celebrating the desecration of the land, the water and the people who belong to it. They do so after going head to head with one of the largest and most peaceful opposition movements in history. But it’s clear that this is exactly what opponents of DAPL are: a movement, a living breathing entity that draws strength from its setbacks as much as its victories, and which will not be silenced or defeated. The struggle is not over.

If you oppose DAPL, here’s something you can do:

Find out if your bank is funding DAPL, and write to them. Or send a more powerful message by removing your funds to smaller credit unions or co-operatives. Stay informed and volunteer your time or resources where possible.

RELATED EXHIBIT: To learn more, visit Standing Rock: Art and Solidarity, on view beginning May 20, 2017 at the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. Poster art, T-shirts, and photographs demonstrate the immediacy of the protests and conflicts as they have unfolded, while a video art piece by the Native collaborators of Winter Count and a historical tour explore the broader meanings of these events.

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Missouri Watershed | Alma and Friends
Other Water Systems
Lakes, streams, and rivers that do not drain into the Mississippi or its tributaries
Natural underground reservoirs of water, which supply much of the drinking water for North America — and which are vulnerable to pipeline pollution
Missouri River System
The longest Mississippi tributary at 2,341 miles, considered by some to be the Mississippi's true main stem. It drains half a million square miles of North America.
Indigenous Lands
Lands either held or claimed by Native nations
Bakken Shale Petroleum Deposit
Discovered in the 1950s, 4 billion barrels of oil in this Great Plains deposit were cheaper to extract when fracking became possible. That led to the push for DAPL.
Urban Cores
Places with population densities higher than 1,000 per square mile
Dakota Access Pipeline
The 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline would carry up to 450,000 barrels of oil per day through four states, crossing rivers that provide water for 17 million people downstream.

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