A Storied Battle Over North Dakota Oil Pipeline

Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.

Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.

Heavy snow and winter cold settled this month on thousands of Native Americans and their supporters encamped on Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Nearby, the Missouri River slipped past. The river’s clean waters serve as the wellspring in what has steadily become one of the storied confrontations over energy development, justice, finance, and human rights in the American West.

Viewed in one dimension, the standoff over construction of a 1,172-mile, $US 3.8 billion oil pipeline pits thousands of First Nation protestors massed on the prairie to safeguard their sole source of drinking water from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government and finance. But so many other dimensions of history, law, human rights, justice, finance, and climate change motivate the campaign to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. What has emerged on the wintry plains of North Dakota is a distinctive, if not unique event in the history of American environmentalism, and a seminal struggle over civil rights.

Risky proposals for big dams and mines, and actual environmental disasters like oil spills and chemical plant explosions have long stirred public protests. Such campaigns form the lifeblood of environmental advocacy.

Rarely, though, has such a big and expensive American industrial project, in the midst of construction, encountered opposition significant enough to threaten its opening. Perhaps the only comparable campaigns, according to environmental historians, are the direct actions to protect the endangered spotted owl that halted timber cutting in California and Oregon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If the Sioux succeed in halting the Dakota Access pipeline, it would be seen by First Nation leaders as comparable to the legal battle that re-established Native American fishing rights in the Northwest in 1979.

“The fight in North Dakota has attracted a lot of national and international attention,” said Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado and a noted authority on tribal treaties and law. “But you have to remember tribes have been on that land a long time. Tribes are amazingly resilient.”

The campaign to halt the pipeline gained even greater gravity after the election of Donald Trump, who owns shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer. Trump vowed during the campaign to void U.S. commitments made in Paris last year to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, and to tear down regulatory barriers that he viewed as impeding development of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Campaign With Momentous Implications
In sum, what started last August with a call to action to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to prevent a mega fossil energy project from threatening a primary source of fresh water has grown into a public interest campaign with powerful implications for energy development, the environment, and the rule of law. Next week 2,000 veterans are scheduled to arrive in North Dakota to establish what they call a “human shield” to protect the thousands of “water protectors” that have already joined the campaign.

“It’s so obviously driven by civil rights issues on top of environmental concerns,” said Bill Kovarik, a professor of journalism and an environmental historian at Radford University in Virginia. “That’s a dimension that’s been hidden for so long.”

Two 21st century tactical innovations are empowering the protest and putting government authorities and Energy Transfer Partners on the defensive. The first is social media, especially Twitter and streaming video, that provide immediacy to the hour-by-hour shifts in strategy on both sides, and drawn thousands of tribal members and supporters to frontline demonstrations that have gotten ugly.

In October, security forces hired by Energy Transfer, used attack dogs to contain demonstrators. Pictures and video flowed from the banks of Missouri and helped prompt the White House to intervene to block pipeline construction. On Thanksgiving weekend police hammered protestors with a water cannon and stun grenades, events that also were first captured and disseminated globally on Twitter and streaming video.

Banks Under Pressure
The second tactic is the work of Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Banktrack.org, and several more research groups that have exposed and started to pressure the financiers that have provided $US 2.5 billion in loans and $US $10 billion in credit lines to energy companies involved in building the pipeline and scheduled to ship fuel at its completion. Kelcy Warren, the Energy Transfer chief executive, called the investigation an act of “terrorism.”

The findings, and global calls for banks to withdraw their loans, have destabilized the pipeline’s investment terrain. Two of the pipeline financiers have withdrawn their stock investments in Energy Transfer Partners and other companies involved in the pipeline. Management of Energy Transfer has been shifted to Sunoco Logistics, a sister firm. In November, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a Cleveland-based research group, reported that Energy Transfer faced a January 1, 2017 deadline to complete the project or the group of oil producers scheduled to use the pipeline would have the freedom to renegotiate their contracts. The initial shipping contracts were signed when oil sold for nearly $US 100 a barrel. The new contracts will come when oil is roughly half that price, a drop in value that could ruin the pipeline’s business strategy. The IEEFA report also found the Dakota Access pipeline may be superfluous in the energy transport industry.

Pipeline Not Needed

North Dakota’s daily production reached a peak of 1.2 million barrels two years ago. Due to low oil prices has steadily dropped to around 900,000 barrels per day in 2016. The Dakota Access pipeline was designed to transport up to 570,000 barrels of oil daily from a Bakken oilfield that before the price collapse was heading to 2 million barrels of oil a day. “The region’s existing pipelines and oil-by-rail facilities, together with local oil refineries, can handle nearly 2.5 million barrels of Bakken crude throughput per day,” wrote the authors of IEEFA report. “The region’s oil transport infrastructure is already overbuilt, with some 60 percent of its capacity currently unutilized.”

“The project is obviously in deep trouble financially, and it’s in deeper trouble with enormous global opposition,” said Doug Norlen, director of the Economic Policy Program at Friends of the Earth. “It’s a major stranded asset in the making.”

To some extent Native American leaders anticipated the sound and the fury that has enveloped the pipeline battle. The northern Great Plains is a region all too familiar with brutish land and resource struggles between the Sioux Tribe and government security forces. A mid-19th treaty ceded much of the northern Great Plains to the Sioux Nation for their sole and sovereign use in perpetuity. But after the Civil War, as settlers of a growing nation eyed western lands, timber, and minerals for development, Congress steadily withdrew treaty rights and obligations, and put new and much tighter boundaries on tribal lands.

Sioux tribes fought back. U.S. cavalry, responding to Native American activism to protect their land and retain customs, killed over 300 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in December 1890. The massacre occurred bout 330 miles south of the contemporary frontlines formed this year on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

Before that, in military action stirred by gold mining on tribal land, General George Armstrong Custer and 200 U.S. troops were killed in 1876 by Sioux warriors at Little Bighorn, in what is now present day Montana, about 400 miles west of the Standing Rock battle.

On Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction order to require Sioux tribal members and water protectors to abandon protest camps on federal land closest to the place where the Dakota pipeline was meant to cross beneath the Missouri. The next day, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, issued a similar eviction order for state land close by. The authorities issued a December 5 deadline for complying with the orders, but also noted they would not use force to move demonstrators.

Like so much else that is unfolding in North Dakota, the orders were fraught with cultural and historic significance. General George Custer was born on December 5, in 1839.

— Keith Schneider

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