The Pyrrhic Victory at Standing Rock

daplCourtesy of Occupy Democrats, with over 75,000 likes and 60,000 shares.  This meme claims “victory” over the recent Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny easements over a small portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline route which delays, and potentially halts, the project.  While many groups, and Facebook pages, are rejoicing over this decision, a more in-depth look reveals there is little to get excited over, particularly as it relates to the Standing Rock Tribe.

The Decision

The Army Corps of Engineers released a statement saying they have denied the easement for the portion of the pipeline crossing underneath Lake Oahe.  The Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy said this:

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do.  The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”

She went on to say this would be best accomplished through an Environmental Impact Statement.  This contradicts the previous decision in their 1261 page Environmental Assessment report (apparently different from an Environmental Impact Statement?!) in which Col. John Henderson concluded this about the Dakota Pipeline (page 6):

Moreover, for the reasons stated herein and discussed in greater detail in the Environmental Assessment, the District granting the referenced Section 408 permissions does not constitute a major federal action that would significantly affect the quality of the human environment. As a result, I have determined that preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement is not required. This conclusion and the processes and documents supporting it are in compliance with all applicable laws, executive orders, regulations and guidelines.

Since the Corps found in their initial assessment that the pipeline would be the most environmentally friendly way to transport the oil in North Dakota, that it posed no injurious threats to the public interest, and that it parallels the previously built Northern Border Pipeline, it can be assumed that this decision was influenced by the pipeline protests.  However, as the construction of the pipeline in North Dakota is already nearly complete, this decision does not “deny the Dakota Access pipeline construction”.  It’s already been constructed.  This just temporarily blocks one of the last remaining portions of the pipeline.  Even from their own statement, it just says they want to explore alternate routes, not that the pipeline will be denied.  With just one more month left in the Obama presidency, it’s likely this decision will be overturned, as Trump recently voiced his support for the pipeline.  If this is even considered a victory, it’s likely a short-lived one.

Is This a Victory For the Environment?

Not if you believe the Army Corps of Engineers initial report, which concluded that this was the safest and least impactful way to transport the oil.  Assuming the unlikely event that the pipeline gets blocked forever, this doesn’t keep the oil from being drilled in North Dakota.  It just means they will have to find a different way of transporting it.  The Corps estimated that 750 rail cars per day (about 10-12 trains) would be required to transport the oil carried by the pipeline.  Or worse, 2045 full tanker trucks per day.  These are the other options if the pipeline isn’t built, which the Corps previously determined would not only use far more energy to ship, but would be far more dangerous, more apt to spill, and likely to cause environmental impact.  It’s important to note that stopping the pipeline does not stop the oil from being drilled in the Bakken region.

Is This a Victory For the Standing Rock Tribe?

North Dakota pipeline map

Current crude oil pipelines in ND.

As a caption for this meme, Occupy Democrats wrote that this was a “stunning victory for Native American rights”.  Its unclear which rights they are referring to, but this doesn’t seem to match reality.  None of the pipeline went through the Standing Rock tribal lands (for a primer on understanding the pipeline, start here).  Therefore, there was no issue over land rights, as the pipeline is being built on either private land or Federal land, neither of which the tribe has legal control over.

As far as water rights, this claim is also dubious.  None of the pipeline would come in contact with the Missouri River, the current source of the tribe’s water supply.  In fact, it would lie well below the riverbed, sometimes up to 90 feet below it, and have shut off valves on either side.  There are already 8 pipelines that cross the Missouri River in ND, including the Northern Border Pipeline, which crosses at the same location as the planned Dakota Access Pipeline.  Given these facts, it’s hard to take seriously that the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline was ever violating the tribe’s water rights.

Ironically, the real problem with Standing Rock’s water has nothing to do with pipelines at all.  Currently, the Standing Rock Tribe is implementing plans to switch their water source.  Currently, their water intake is at Fort Yates, which is close to the pipeline crossing, and the central focus of the “water protectors”.  This will be switched in the near future (likely before the pipeline is finished) to Mobridge, 70 miles south of the proposed pipeline crossing.  This move had nothing to do with the Dakota Access Pipeline, it was a result of an aging water intake subject to many issues, particularly drought.  This was revealed in a Senate hearing back in 2004, where tribal members recounted how Standing Rock was almost without water, and had to take emergency measures like closing a hospital temporarily.  The Mobridge intake is in a deeper section of river, and should offer the tribe more reliable water, even in droughts.  It’s also far downstream from the pipeline, making the protesters’ claims about water rights even less credible.

Putting Standing Rock’s Problems Into Context

When looking at this issue, it’s beneficial to look at the broader context of the problems facing Standing Rock, and much of the Native American community.  Here are some startling realities on the reservation.  (All stats were taken from this report compiled by the tribe, unless otherwise sourced.)

  • The poverty rate on the Standing Rock Reservation has averaged 42% for the past 3 decades.  Child poverty is at 52%
  • The unemployment rate is staggering, some reporting it at 79%, compared to a 3% rate for North Dakota
  • Government jobs make up 60% of all employment, and 90% of all compensation
  • Per capita income is just $13,474, compared to $25,803 for the rest of North Dakota
  • Mortality rates are between 3-4 times as much as the rest of ND
  • Motor vehicle crash death rate is about 6 times greater compared to ND
  • 43% obesity rate
  • Sexually transmitted infection rates are 3.5 times that of ND
  • In Sioux County, 37% of adults smoke, and 28% drink excessively
  • In Sioux County, high school graduation rates are just 14%, compared to 88% throughout ND

This is a portrait of a community in despair, with significant issues and a standard of living on par with the third world.  There are few economic opportunities, almost no industry to speak of, and little hope for those who stay on the reservation to succeed in life.  To pretend like temporarily stopping a pipeline that would likely have little to no impact on the reservation is a “huge victory” is to have an astoundingly poor contextual knowledge of their situation.  The reality is that this pipeline decision solves none of Standing Rock’s real problems.  All of the above is likely to continue after the protesters leave.

Hope for Standing Rock?

Indian reservation housing

An example of housing on a reservation in South Dakota

Standing Rock, as well as most Indian reservations, have among the worst poverty and social ailments of any racial group in the US.  They are in desperate need of industry and business growth to improve their communities, job prospects and reliance on welfare.  A recent article in The Atlantic highlighted one of the biggest hindrances to their success.  It wasn’t lack of government spending, racism, or sports mascots. None of these issues can explain the disparity.  The real culprit is property rights.

Few realize that Native Americans don’t possess the same property rights on reservations that most of us take for granted.  Since their land is held “in trust” by the US government, and “owned” communally by the tribe, individuals can’t own land.  Additionally, no bank will issue them mortgages to buy a house, as they could never foreclose on the property (banks are prohibited from owning native lands).  This prevents them from enjoying the immense benefits of land ownership, like building equity and selling land.  It also creates little incentive to improve, or even maintain, their current houses.  The results can be seen by anyone who drives through these reservations and observes the houses.  The same problems of lacking property rights applies to starting small businesses, and most other entrepreneurship ideas.  Essentially, by preserving Native American reservations, we are cutting them off from the US economy and entrenching them in poverty.  As Conrad Stewart, chair of the Natural Resources Infrastructure Committee for the Crow reservation put it, “we are the highest regulated race in the world”.

It’s estimated that Indian reservations contain almost 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi, 50 percent of potential uranium reserves, and 20 percent of known oil and gas reserves.  This equates to $1.5 trillion in wealth.  It’s true some tribes might be weary of mining these resources for environmental reasons, but the individual members should at least have the opportunity to own land and engage in economic activity that the rest of America does.  The real focus on protecting Standing Rock should not be on this pipeline, but on protecting their property rights.