A dramatic standoff in North Dakota continues between the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the Dakota Access oil pipeline project. This direct threat to the tribe’s drinking water, to their rightful sovereignty, and to cultural heritage sites that include a sacred burial ground are being closely followed and supported by the climate change and justice movements.
With representation from more than 100 tribes in one of the largest Native American protests in history, violent attacks on protesters by security dogs and numerous instances of macing have drawn considerable criticism, profound concern, and a strong expression of solidarity with the tribe.
When President Obama, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior stepped in to temporarily halt the project, activists celebrated.
But, this pause is no victory.
Overpass Light Brigade
Photo: Joe Brusky
Not out of thin air
Importantly, the conflict didn’t just emerge out of thin air in recent weeks, but is the result of a flawed approval process. Over much of last year, the Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) repeatedly requested that the US Corp of Army Engineers do a full archeological investigation of lands in question. But in December, the Corp – required by law to consult with tribes on potential impacts – published an Environmental Assessment claiming that the project avoided impacts to tribally significant sites. Standing Rock, plus Osage and Iowa Tribe THPOs, continued to voice concerns.
But by late July, the project was fast tracked – followed by an injunction from the Standing Rock Sioux, suing the Corps. By mid-August, Energy Transfer Partners (the parent company for the pipeline) sued tribal leaders for blocking construction.
Fast forward to now: several thousand protectors occupy the land; a court ruling overturned the tribe’s injunction; and then three government agencies placed a temporary halt on the project.
Where do we go from here?
First, we must realize that the tri-agency halt only applies to a very limited 20-mile segment of the pipeline. The work can continue on the vast majority of the pipeline. Forty eight percent of the construction is already complete.
Second, federal regulatory authority over the pipeline’s construction is limited, largely because only one percent of its route is on federal land. Judge Boaserg’s ruling states as much:
A project of this magnitude often necessitates an extensive federal appraisal and permitting process. Not so here. Domestic oil pipelines, unlike natural-gas pipelines, require no general approval from the federal government. In fact, DAPL needs almost no federal permitting of any kind because 99% of its route traverses private land.
The exception is that the Army Corp of Engineers does have regulation authority where itcrosses waterways, under the Clean Water Act – 3% of the pipeline.
Third, this is only a pause in the DAPL’s construction. Moreover, Judge Boasberg does not think the tribe will prevail in proving the merits of its case.
Tribal members plan to continue their occupation, and resisters are prepared to stay through fall, winter, and even longer. Across the nation, numerous events are being spontaneously organized in support.
A perspective on the situation
Potentially, however, this could be a turning point in the long, shameful history of the treatment of Native Americans.
Who are we as a people if we continue to allow these injustices, while turning a blind eye to mounting fossil fuel impacts and calls for climate emergency action that go unheeded? Moreover, can we look at the values, principles, and assumptions as to how and why Western Civilization exerts dominance over the gift of creation, as though it is only a collection of resources to be co-modified, bought, sold, and trashed without regard for higher meaning and greater purpose?
As we ponder such questions, we also need to address at the highest levels that we must achieve a national conversation on the climate emergency and the rapidly mounting adverse impacts of fossil fuels on this planet and its inhabitants. From there, it seems unavoidable that we must achieve a society-wide mobilization to eliminate fossil fuel use within a decade and also draw down previous GhG emissions to a level compatible with a healthy climate. This can only happen through a massive awakening campaign with the support of philanthropy.
So, remember to express strong support for these heroes and heroines in a fight for their lives and their way of life. They are the dramatic front-line in a global struggle that ultimately touches us all.