By Elke Weesjes
Standing Rock solidarity march in San Francisco, November 2016 © Pax Ahimsa Gethen
For months, Native American protesters and their supporters have physically blocked construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Lake Oahe in North Dakota. Since demonstrations began in April of this year, marchers have endured violent detentions, inspired celebrities to join the cause, and the situation has become an international symbol for the impacts of climate change on indigenous people. Still, while demonstrators have garnered lots of attention and made some small progress, it's difficult to determine how the battle will end.
In the latest volley, Energy Transfer Partners—the company behind the 1,172-mile underground oil line—filed a federal lawsuit last week requesting to complete the infrastructure project without final approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The suit comes in response to the Army Corps announcement that it would take more time to review the pipeline’s route in the area of Lake Oahe in North Dakota, home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, before issuing a final permit.
The news has further spurred the nationwide protests against the pipeline. Protesters, which include tribal members, environmentalists, celebrities, and other activists, have urged the Obama administration to completely shut down the project that would connect the Bakken oil fields in North West Dakota with an oil hub in Patoka, Illinois.
The Standing Rock Sioux—who maintain that the pipeline threatens their main water source and will destroy sacred sites—have protested against the project since 2014 when it was announced the line would cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, North Dakota, one-half mile north of its reservation. Tribal leaders say they were not consulted about the project, even though it’s required by federal law.
“Permits for the project were approved and construction began without meaningful consultation,” David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, wrote in the New York Times.
The tribe wasn't alone in its concerns about water risks and other environmental factors. In late March, the Army Corps, at the bidding of the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal groups, expanded the scope of their draft environmental impact assessment—but to no avail. The final assessment, issued in July, evaluated the anticipated environmental, economic, cultural and social implications but concluded that the “proposed action is not injurious to the public interest”.
In response, the Standing Rock Sioux sued the Army Corps citing “violation of multiple federal statutes that authorize the pipeline's construction and operation, and seeking an emergency order to halt construction.”
Protests intensified in late August and early September. On August 24, the Sioux requested an injunction that would halt construction until their broader lawsuit against the pipeline was resolved. About a week later, while the injunction request was still pending, Dakota Access, LLC—a fully owned subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners—began digging a section of the pipeline route that possibly contained native burial artifacts and other archeological objects. When protesters attempted to stop the bulldozers, the company’s private security on site responded with dogs and pepper spray.
Many activists gathered in and round the tribe’s spiritual camp Sacred Stone on the banks of the Missouri River at the point the pipeline is planned to cross. © Tony Webster 2016
The tribe’s request for an injunction was denied on September 9 by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg. Immediately after the decision, the Army issued a joint statement—along with the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior—stating it needed to reassess its previous decisions regarding Lake Oahe under the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal regulations. The statement also requested the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles of the site. In response, Energy Transfer Partners filed the aforementioned federal lawsuit.
As the protests and the lawsuits continue, it is difficult to predict what will happen next. It’s possible that the election of Donald Trump could turn the tables in favor of Energy Transfer Partners. The president-elect has voiced strong support of the fossil fuels industry and has vowed to approve any projects that would revive the country’s oil and coal industries, including the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
While Trump has not made any public statements about the Dakota Access pipeline, there is indication that Trump might be personally motivated to support the project—his financial disclosure forms show he has invested large sums in Energy Transfer Partners and the company’s chief executive, Kelcy Warren, gave more than $100,000 to Trump’s election campaign.
In a recent interview, Warren expressed optimism about the future of the pipeline regardless of the protests.
“If they want to stick around and continue to do what they are doing, great, but we’re building the pipeline,” Warren told PBS NewsHour on November 16.
His optimism might be premature, though. Delays have cost the project at least $1 million and caused Energy Transfer Partners stocks to fall. Most recently, Norwegian Bank DNB announced that it has sold its $3 million worth of assests in the pipeline project, according to Aftenposten, Norway’s largest printed newspaper.
In addition, DNB is reevaluating a $342 million loan it provided for the construction of the pipeline, given the controversy that’s arisen around the project in recent months. DNB costumers reportedly protested the bank’s involvement and threatened to close accounts. DNB has initiated an independent review of how indigenous rights are safeguarded in the construction process.
"We have always been clear that we will only finance projects that meet the DNB's requirements for environmental and social conditions, DNB’s Executive Vice President of Communications Even Westerveld told Aftenposten. "In case these initiatives do not give satisfactory answers and results, we consider selling our part of the financing of the project."