Oil & Water: Standing Rock Sioux Fight Oil Pipeline

The Sioux territory has been gobbled away for decades, beginning in an 1851 treaty, then in 1868, then again in the 1870s when gold was found in the Black Hills, then in 1941, 1954, and again in 1960 when tribe members were relocated to make room for dams and the flooding they cause. Now North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe feels that history is repeating itself in a threat to their water source caused by the construction of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline less than a mile upstream from their reservation.

warning 1 400x267 Oil & Water: Standing Rock Sioux Fight Oil Pipeline

Energy Transfer Partners, the development company, is taking advantage of this haphazard, piecemeal permitting process to begin work on land where the pipeline has already been approved, while awaiting permitting elsewhere. “Construction began this week in North Dakota, South Dakota and Illinois,” states Vicki Granado, who handles media relations for the company (she refused a full interview, but communicated via several e-mails).  “Iowa is scheduled to begin shortly.  We expect the pipeline to be in service by year end.”

This is “a bullying approach to starting construction before the process is completed,” exclaims Jan Hasselman, a staff attorney for EarthJustice, which is working closely with the tribe on legal matters . “I’ve seen shopping malls that had more review.” Energy Transfer Partners has “taken what I’ve called a shock and awe approach to the permitting process.”

Home to deer, turkey, buffalo, antelope, bobcats, and a variety of fish, the Standing Rock reservation finds its health and welfare endangered once again, along with sacred burial grounds and prayer sites. The 30 inch diameter Dakota Access Pipeline would cross the Missouri River several times on its 1,168 mile journey to bring crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Yet Energy Transfer Partners has begun building the pipeline even though it has not received a full legal authorization.

“If a leak happens, it will ruin that site forever,” says Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council. “Because the pipe will be underground there is effectively no way to know if it’s leaking unless the leak is huge,” adds Hasselman.

If a leak does occur, “the water and shorelines will never be the same,” says Archambault II. “Plants will never be the same.” Hunting and fishing, recreational tourism, and irrigation for fields will all be endangered.

One component of the crude oil flowing in the pipeline will be benzene, a toxic chemical. “Benzene cannot be smelled or tasted,” says Archambault II. Exposure to benzene is associated with cancer and aplastic anaemia, as well as “headache, dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, tremors and loss of consciousness,” according to the World Health Organization.

Industry Says Oil Pipeline No Problem

Energy Transfer Partners minimizes such dangers, arguing that the latest technology protects against leaks. Granado explains that “Pipelines are the safest, most efficient method of transporting natural resources, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.” She adds that Energy Transfer Partners is ranked “among the safest of large midstream companies.”

Yet leaks have invariably happened in past pipelines. As just one example, despite assurances of safety, the first part of Keystone XL pipeline, which runs through North Dakota, sprouted 35 leaks in 2010, its first year of operation. (The pipeline’s controversial extension was never built, falling to extreme pressure from the environmental community.)

Indeed, pipelines have a long history of, sooner or later, spilling their precious cargo of black gold. “We know a couple things about pipelines,” says Hasselman. “They will leak, they will spill, they will fail. You don’t know when or where, but it is going to happen.”

dave 178x267 Oil & Water: Standing Rock Sioux Fight Oil Pipeline
Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, is leading the fight to keep Energy Transfer Partners’ oil pipeline out of the watershed of sacred tribal lands. Photos: Frank White Bull.

The question, for Archambault II, is “not if, but when, is it going to leak. It may not happen when I’m alive, but I have to look out for my people, my nation, inherent rights, treaty rights.” He adds that, in a meeting with Energy Transfer Partners he was told that they chose this route because it is “the least impactful if something is to happen. With one breath they say that nothing will happen,” due to new technology, such as shut off valves. “In the next breath” they say they picked this route because “if something does happen it will be the least impactful on fish, wildlife, and people.”

The location near the Standing Rock Sioux was not actually Energy Transfer Partners’ first choice. An earlier route through Bismarck, North Dakota, led to tremendous local resistance. So the project was rerouted. Hasselman asks, “is there anything” to distinguish Standing Rock from Bismarck, “besides the fact that there are a lot more people in Bismarck and that they are white people, powerful people?”

Granada, however, states that “Dakota Access does not cross any reservation land and is compliant with all regulations regarding tribal coordination and cultural resources. We have communicated with the various tribes that have an interest in the . . . project and will continue to do so.” She adds that “we reached a mutually agreeable easement with our friends and neighbor the Three Affiliated Tribes.”

Contrarily, Archambault II says that Energy Transfer Partners “did not include any tribes in first consultation. They acted as if this tribe never existed.” Letters from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Advisory Counsel on Historic Preservation, and the Department of the Interior all support Archambault II here, stating that consultation with the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes has been insufficient.

The Department of the Interior goes on to call for a full environmental review of the pipeline’s impacts. They explain that “a spill could impact the waters that the Tribe and individual tribal members residing in that area rely upon for drinking and other purposes.” In addition, “the potential impact on trust resources in this particular situation necessitates full analysis and disclosure . . . through the preparation of an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement].”

Currently, however, environmental approval of pipeline projects is handled by state and local jurisdictions and by the Army Corps of Engineer, which has jurisdiction only where pipelines cross waterways and wetlands. Rather than examining the pipeline’s entire impact, the Army Corps is responsible only for specific segments, with a different authority in charge of permitting for each section. For instance, Colonel John Henderson will be deciding on permitting in the Omaha District, one of three such officials.

Social Media to the Rescue?

To stop the project, the Standing Rock Sioux have launched a media campaign on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms. They have employed the youth of the tribe to stand up for the future in a series of videos and an online petition campaign, Rezpect Our Water, with over 100,000 signatures. Standing Rock also joined with other tribes in a 500 mile relay delivering a petition to stop or relocate the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Furthermore, in a burst of publicity, the tribe has enlisted the aid of Leonardo DiCaprio along with the stars of the forthcoming Justice League of America film, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher. Having Aquaman and the Flash by your side would seem to give one moral authority, but that hasn’t stopped Energy Transfer Partners.

Yet Archambault II believes the issue is far from resolved. “We’re saying if you do give a permit we’ll sue,” says Archambault II. And if they don’t grant a permit, Energy Transfer Partners will sue. “The Corps knows there’s a suit either way.” They will therefore likely take painstaking care in deciding on final permits

Finally, there is the question of how to transport oil if no pipeline is built.  Train and truck pose their own set of risks, not only leaks but the possibility of explosion in the event of accident.  Yet, says Hasselman, “There is a broader context here about continuing to invest billions of dollars in fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Hasselman also critiques a pipeline approval process that lacks a full overview.  “One of purposes of a full environmental review would be to look at alternatives,” to build the best pipeline possible if one is absolutely needed.  Instead, we have a process of following the path of least resistance, of a pipeline built dangerously close to a tribe with a grim history that may be repeating itself.