Dakota Access Pipeline, Too Much, Too Late

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In the nineteenth century, we Americans took over their land under the curious and clearly faulty doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

We put the Native Americans on reservations, and ever since we have been whittling away at these seriously reduced holdings. A perfect example is the Dakota Access Pipeline, a case of pipeline location mismanagement that rivals only Keystone XL in scope.

What is Dakota Access?

The Dakota Access Pipeline , which has become a bellwether of social and environmental protest on a par with the suspended Keystone XL Pipeline expansion project, is a $3.7-billion Energy Transfer Partners, L.P.  proposal that would carry about 500,000 barrels of oil per day approximately  1,172 miles from oil fields in western North Dakota to an existing pipeline in Patoka, Illinois, which connects to refineries in the Gulf.

Capacity would make it the biggest Bakken Oil pipeline ever built, and abandonment would reportedly cost the company a fortune, since the pipeline is more than 87-percent complete as of September 2016.  

Where Does It Go?

Dakota Access crosses the Missouri River; four states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois); seven North Dakota counties (Mountrail, Williams, McKenzie, Dunn, Mercer, Morton and Emmons.); three terrain/climate zones; numerous regional regulatory agencies; and the regulatory force majeure of two separate nations: the United States and the Sioux Nation, whose reservation lies adjacent to Sioux nation heritage lands, specifically in Morton County.

Why Are the Sioux Protesting?

Dakota Access, according to some, threatens Native American sacred sites and, potentially, the drinking water of about 8,000 Standing Rock Sioux and 20 million other Americans, all of whom will live alongside the 30-inch diameter pipeline.

The History of Dakota Access Pipeline

The history of Dakota Access has been almost as difficult as the history of the Sioux themselves.

The pipeline was first proposed in 2014, just before a global oil glut forced the price of oil down to levels it had never seen before. The application for the pipeline route took place on Dec. 22, 2014.

As of February 2015, 17 banks – Citibank, TD Securities, Mizuho, and Bank of Tokyo among them – had loaned (or pledged) $2.5 million for construction. Industry insiders felt the project was a sure thing, offering a straight-line shot from the source of the oil in North Dakota to Illinois, and from there south to the refineries in Texas and Oklahoma, along the Gulf of Mexico – from which point the oil is shipped where it is needed.

In March 2015, the Public Service Commission held hearings in three affected North Dakota counties: Mandan, Killdeer and Williston. The PSC granted pipeline approval on  Jan. 20, 2016.  It looked like a done deal until April, when the Standing Rock Sioux put their foot down. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it had provided a platform for the Sioux to express their concerns. The Sioux vote was unanimously negative. One wonders how such blatant disregard managed to escape national attention.

But it didn’t escape for long. In July, the Corps approved three easements for water crossings – on Lake Oahe, Lake Sakakawea (e.g., Sacajawea), and the Mississippi River, the “Father of Waters”.  One day later, the Sioux filed an emergency motion to halt construction, to protect sacred sites that – while not inside the official reservation – occupied Sioux heritage lands whose disposition (financially or geographically) has never been finalized. The government says they paid the Indians for the land. The Sioux say they never collected the payment: as though land, Mother Earth, could be bought and sold.

The Status of the Dakota Access Pipeline

On October 5, 2016, a three-judge panel from the D.C. District of the U.S. Court of Appeals heard arguments from both pipeline proponents and opponents, but a decision could take months.

Energy Transfer has since switched tactics to complete this “vital” pipeline by buying or leasing land rights wherever possible, from white landowners. Where this has not been possible, construction has often been halted. Project owners say that if construction is halted, it will cost them $1.4 billion, but there is little doubt that, in the end, it will prove harder to stop the money than the questionable rights of aboriginal peoples.

The problem with this economic analysis of loss and gain is that oil is currently a glut on the national and global market, having lost about 30 percent of its value since the early part of 2015, and another pipeline is redundant, no matter how direct a route it takes from Illinois to North Dakota.

What the Sioux Nation Wants

The Sioux, a Native American tribe and major First Nations group headquartered primarily in the Black Hills of North Dakota – what the Sioux fondly call “He Sapa” – are not merely a nation inside a nation, but also an integral part of  U.S. National Park Service (Dept. of the Interior), in that they help manage Badlands National Park.

The Sioux are opposing Dakota Access on the grounds that it disturbs Native American artifacts on, or immediately outside of , the  2.3 million-acre reservation. They also contend that the Army Corps of Engineers’ July 2016 decision to grant permits flew in the face of other reports (from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation) that expressed serious concerns.   

The truth is the Sioux no longer own the land they are protesting over. (For an excellent history of how, and why, see The Atlantic’s overview). The fact is, they never owned it. As Chief Black Hawk once said:

“My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon. So long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have a right to the soil. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away.”

“The Washington Post has called the protest a “movement”. Financiers dread that word: corporate types use it in a derogatory fashion. When newspapers use it, it is a red flag for a situation that the editor feels has been blown out of proportion. The only certainty is that this view is not shared by the Standing Rock Sioux, or their allies, the Rosebud Reservation Sioux and the lower Brule Sioux.

In the last few months, as the Dakota Access pipeline has come to the attention of the American people, no fewer than 140 people have been arrested. These include film journalist Deia Schlosberg, environmental activist Amy Goodman (Democracy Now), actress Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars), Madison Alder Rebecca Kemble,  and more than 135 others who have stood their ground over the course of the protests.

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