#NODAPL – A Problem That Will Not Go Away Easily

The Dakota Access Pipeline has been in commercial operation since June 2017, despite the months of protests by Sioux Native Americans and others at Standing Rock. The pipeline in North Dakota passes under Lake Oahe along the Missouri River, the main water source for the Standing Rock tribe. The pipeline runs a risk of leaking into this main water supply and runs through sacred burial grounds. This is in addition to the undue effects that this kind of oil production has on the climate and the environment. In June this year, Energy Transfer Partners (EPT), the company that operates the pipeline, made an application the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to increase the oil going through the pipeline from 500,000 barrels of oil a day to 1.1 million, according to the Associated Press.

In 2016, at the height of the protests, they dominated world headlines with images of security guards using mace on non-violent protesters, as well as turning high-pressure water cannons on large groups in freezing temperatures. Since then, some protestors have filed lawsuits against these guards for this unwarranted violence. Protests continue today, as the Columbia Chronicle reported people protesting the expansion of the pipeline at a rally in Illinois on September 27.

The protests came after the pipeline was rerouted from its original path of going near the predominantly white city of Bismarck, which was changed because of the health and safety risks of potential leakages for the larger population. At the time, Trevor Noah of the Daily Show noted this suspect change, and how it disproportionately impacted indigenous interests. EPT maintains that the pipe is safe and there is no major risk of leakage, yet this rerouting still occurred. Since 2017, there have been at least 10 reported leaks, and the Standing Rock tribe has released a scientific report showing that EPT does not have the appropriate technology to actually detect all leaks, reports Inside Climate News. A staff attorney at EarthJustice, the legal firm representing the Standing Rock tribe, said in an interview with Between the Lines that if there were to be a leakage in the Missouri river, it would be a significant amount of time before it was discovered and the irreparable damage would have already been done.

Pipelines and oil production in America have become a topical issue again in campaigns for the 2020 presidential elections, with candidates like Elizabeth Warren making promises to revoke the “improperly gained permits” for this pipeline and others, as she wrote in a piece for Medium. Other candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, Jay Inslee and Tom Steyer have also made similar promises. The current President, Donald Trump, gave the pipeline the go-ahead once he came into office, and was an investor in EPT before he was elected, so his interests lie squarely with the continuation of the pipeline.

This is a clear disadvantaging of the Sioux people in the area and part of the larger story of the disrespect of indigenous interests in the United States. Not only that, the effect that this pipe would have on the environment if a major leak were to occur would be catastrophic. You only have to look to another of EPT’s pipelines, the Rover pipeline in Ohio, to see the disastrous results. In May 2017 over two million gallons of “drilling fluids” were leaked into the surrounding wetlands, “It is a tragedy in that the affected wetland will likely not recover to its previous condition for decades,” as the Guardian reported at the time.

The fact that the pipeline was rerouted to avoid leakage near the town of Bismarck shows that EPT and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers note the serious harm this pipeline. Yet, they continued its production and did not attempt any real negotiations with the Standing Rock tribe, with security and police responding instead with violence. EPT has a history of pipeline accidents and failing to take appropriate safety measures. Ecowatch reported in 2017, that the company had 69 accidents in the years of 2015 and 2016, with four major drinking water sources being affected, justifying the concerns of the protestors. Even the smallest spill would contaminate the water, putting the lives of the tribe in danger. However, EPT and the state of North Dakota have made a lot of money from this pipeline, which is why they are not taking these concerns seriously. According to the Financial Times, the Dakota Access Pipeline has increased oil production in North Dakota by more than a third and reported a 20% future annual production growth in the region.

The President greenlighted this pipeline to increase local production and economy, as it has done. However, Carla Fredericks, director of indigenous rights group First Peoples Worldwide, notes that this pipeline risks becoming a “stranded asset” and “because these projects are so risky, both socially and environmentally, investors for the long term I think should be quite wary of this whole industry.” As policymakers start to place more emphasis on moving away from fossil fuels as a resource when it eventually runs out, this is an apt observation.

The question remains then; can anything be done now? EPT wants to make money, and the current US government wants to keep the profitable oil production in North Dakota high, despite the catastrophic toll it could have on both the environment and human lives. The Standing Rock tribe has not stopped protesting and working to put an end to this pipeline. There have been some small successes that pave the way for future resolving of the problem, or at least the opportunity for indigenous voices to be heard. Earlier this month, a judge allowed the tribe to intervene at the hearing on November 13 regarding the expansion of the pipeline, according to the Bismarck Tribune.  This means that the tribe’s concerns will be heard in a public legal forum. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to prevent the expansion of the pipeline. But, it is a testament to their continuing perseverance that this was granted, as it should have been.

In the long term, there is hope in the campaign promises of candidates for the American elections. These could just be empty promises to gain the Native American vote, but the protestors of the pipeline have shown that they are not willing to give up any time soon. This continued perseverance is key to build awareness that this pipeline is not a solved problem. It is a disaster waiting to happen that will affect the lives of thousands of Sioux in the area, as well as the environment.

This fits into the larger problem of continued reliance on fossil fuels. The U.S. is one of the world’s leading pollutants, and alternative renewable energy sources need to start being invested in to protect both people and the environment. In fact, the Standing Rock tribe has already started this positive change in their community, by establishing a solar farm just five kilometres from the pipeline, reports the Associated Press. This is more of the change we need to see, for protecting the environment and the people who live in it.