Courtesy of The Other 98%, with over 74,000 likes and 260,000 shares. This meme, along with many similar ones, portrays the Dakota Pipeline protesters as victims of oppression, and the pipeline company as polluters and destroyers of sacred lands. A closer examination of this situation reveals this is a gross mischaracterization.
What is the Dakota Pipeline?
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,100 mile long crude oil pipeline project beginning near Stanley, North Dakota, and ending at Patoka, Illinois. It will vary between 12-30 inches in diameter, be mostly underground, and transport up to 570,000 barrels of oil per day, about half of the daily production in the region. Essentially, it’s transporting crude oil from North Dakota to areas where it can be refined. The project has been approved by the required government agencies, and construction has already begun.
What is the Controversy?
Most of the pipeline crosses through private land, where the pipeline company has purchased easements from landowners, while some of it runs through government land, most notably water crossings. None of the pipeline crosses tribal lands, including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, where most of the controversy is centered. There are two main gripes over the pipeline.
- That it crosses the Missouri River, which is a valuable water source for many, including the Standing Rock Tribe.
- The pipeline might run through “sacred sites”, like ancient burial grounds.
Will the Pipeline Cause Environmental Damage?
Or does it “poison our f****** water” as this meme so eloquently puts it? During the pipeline approval process, The Army Corps of Engineers did an extensive, 1260 page environmental assessment of the project. This took into account both the risks of the pipeline itself, and risks of alternatives to the pipeline. The conclusion of the report found no significant impact to the environment, and the Corps gave their blessing to the project. To quote from the report’s conclusion:
I have evaluated the anticipated environmental, economic, cultural, and social effects, and any cumulative effects of the Proposed Action and determined that the Proposed Action is not injurious to the public interest and will not impair the usefulness of the federal projects. Moreover…granting the referenced Section 408 permissions does not constitute a major federal action that would significantly affect the quality of the human environment.
Among its reasoning, the Corps concluded that pipelines are the safest and least impactful way to transport oil. Their conclusion jives with a recent study from the Fraser Institute, which made the same conclusion. They found that not only are pipelines 4.5 times less likely than rail transport to experience an “occurrence”, but that 99% of pipeline occurrences didn’t impact the environment. Since the DAPL would be a state of the art pipeline using the newest safety technology, it’s clearly the safest method of transporting the oil.
In the study, they documented how there are already significant rail backlogs in North Dakota due to the increase in petroleum production, which affects all sorts of other industries, particularly agriculture. In order to carry the estimated 450,000 barrels per day that the DAPL would transport, this would require 750 rail cars each day, which is 10-12 trains. This would be a 50-60% increase in the number of trains transporting crude out of the state, exacerbating the rail congestion as well as being less safe and causing a greater environmental impact.
The other alternative, trucking, is even worse. They found that 2,045 full tanker trucks would need to depart everyday to transport the same amount of oil. Truck transport is even less safe than rail, especially considering the road conditions the average North Dakota winter brings. It also has a much greater impact on the environment than a 30 inch pipeline buried underground.
Other alternatives, like a different pipeline route altogether, were also considered, but the Corps determined the DAPL route was the least invasive to the environment and wildlife habitat. While clearly there is some risk of a pipeline spill, as there is with any transport method, given the alternatives the DAPL appears to be the safest and least impactful option. There are currently many pipelines in North Dakota which cross water sources, including the Missouri River. It’s certainly not unprecedented, and considering there are trucks and trains crossing rivers all the time, it’s still a safer method of transport.
Does the Pipeline Destroy Sacred Land?
This one is a bit tricky, as it’s hard to define what sacred land means. According to the report by the Corps, they consulted extensively with tribal governments as well as the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to determine if the pipeline would impact historical or cultural sites. Ultimately, they made a “No Historic Properties Affected” determination, which the SHPO agreed with.
The vast majority of the pipeline is being built on private property, where they have 100% voluntary agreement from landowners in North Dakota. In this respect, any “sacred” land or burial sights would already be land that owners could build on, or alter. This land does not currently belong to the Standing Rock Tribe. Furthermore, much of the DAPL in the area will follow the previously built Northern Border Pipeline, which means the land has already been used for the same purpose. There were many open public meetings and hearings during the pipeline approval process, which were not attended by tribal members. A strange act of complacency assuming we’re to believe it’s an important issue.
After the pipeline had already been approved, a heritage expert from the Standing Rock Tribe surveyed a portion of the land along the proposed route, and submitted this declaration to a United States District Court. In it, he claims that he saw many stone features which signify potentially valuable historical sites, including burial sites. Most of these were not directly in the pipeline path, but some potentially were. The judge denied the request to block construction, saying:
Aware of the indignities visited upon the tribe over the last centuries, the court scrutinizes the permitting process here with particular care. Having done so, the court must nonetheless conclude that the tribe has not demonstrated that an injunction is warranted here.
It seems that the Army Corps of Engineers, state and local jurisdictions, as well as federal courts have considered cultural matters and given the Standing Rock Tribe opportunities to make their case. There might very well be ancient burial grounds along the pipeline path, perhaps we’ll never know. However, since this is private land, the owners already have the opportunity to build and destroy these sites, with or without the pipeline.
Does the Standing Rock Tribe Have a Claim to this Land?
Yes and no. In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie gave the Lakota Sioux tribe lands in much of the Dakotas, including where some of the DAPL is built. As gold was discovered in the Black Hills and settlers encroached on the land, the Great Sioux War broke out, which ended up with the Sioux relinquishing much of that land (under threat of starvation by the US government). Clearly, this land was acquired immorally, which was eventually acknowledged by the Supreme Court in the 1980 case, United States vs. Sioux Nation of Indians. This court decision required the US government to pay the tribes for the value of the land taken during the war, including interest. However, the Lakota Sioux refused payment (the money is still sitting gathering interest) and continued to demand that the land be returned to them.
Legally, the land does not belong to them anymore, despite this unfortunate history. At this point, it would be impossible to give them back the land without creating a hornet’s nest full of legal and moral issues, as there have been generations of this land changing ownership. Many of the current landowners legitimately purchased, developed and farmed this land, while none of the original Lakota Sioux are still alive. There is no good solution to this problem, but the legal reality is that this land doesn’t belong to the Standing Rock Tribe, and there’s no realistic way to change that. There is certainly no legitimate claim an individual protester can make that they are the proper owner of the land, which brings us to the actions of the protesters.
Are the Protesters Peaceful?
This meme, along with many others, suggest that the police and private security officers are unjustified in their conduct dealing with these protesters. Yet, there are many reports and photos of protesters engaging in clear criminal activity. In the most recent confrontation, protesters lit fires with logs and tires, blocked roads, threw Molotov cocktails at police and locked themselves to pipeline construction equipment. Similar acts have been reported in previous protests, including butchering of cows and bison.
Even if they weren’t overtly violent, these protests are on private land, where the protesters are trespassing against the wishes of the landowners. This cannot be considered a “peaceful act”, as it’s criminal to begin with. Just as conducting a protest on your neighbor’s lawn when they don’t approve is wrong, so are these Dakota Pipeline protests. Going onto someone’s property against their consent is a form of aggression, no different from breaking into someone’s home. The landowners have the right to call the police or use private means to protect their property and remove trespassers, with force if necessary. Considering what they’re dealing with, the police and security forces have been quite restrained in dealing with these protesters. There have been no deaths, and very few and minor injuries. The only way of peacefully protesting the pipeline is to do it on public land, or land where the owner approves of the protest.
The Dakota Access Pipeline has gone through the proper regulatory and legal framework to acquire the private lands needed to build it. Likely, it will be far more efficient, safer and have much less environmental impact than the alternatives to not building it. Considering there are many other pipelines across the state, even in the same spots as the DAPL, the environmental fears about water contamination are hard to take seriously. There are some legitimate concerns about historic and cultural areas being damaged, but these areas are already private property not belonging to the Standing Rock Tribe, where the landowners could do as they please. The protesters are not acting peacefully, and are in the wrong by trespassing on private land, where they have no legal or moral right to protest. While this situation brings up all sorts of valid emotions and memories of unjust acts against Native Americans, it doesn’t give these protesters the right to block a legal pipeline, nor to encroach on land that isn’t theirs.