American Spirit: All you need to know on the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and where it stands

For the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the latest ruling has been a much-awaited victory and temporary relief. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline by Native Americans has been going on for many years

                            American Spirit: All you need to know on the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and where it stands
(Getty Images)

American Spirit is a campaign on the issues faced by the Native American Community in America. Over the next 14 days, this column will feature stories of determination, triumph, legacy and redemption.


While 2020 has mostly been a dark and disappointing year, July brought some good news for those who have been fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline for years. On July 6, a federal judge ruled that owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) must halt operations while the government conducts a full-fledged analysis examining the risk DAPL poses to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. 

Earlier this year, on March 25, Judge James Boasberg (who also made the July 6 ruling) ruled that the US Army Corp of Engineers had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and glossed over the devastating consequences of a potential oil spill when it affirmed its 2016 decision to permit the pipeline. The court had then ordered the Corps to do a full environmental impact statement. The July 6 ruling will result in the shutdown of the DAPL pending completion of a full environmental review -- which could take several years to complete -- and issuance of new permits, which may be up to a new administration.

For the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the latest ruling has been a much-awaited victory and temporary relief. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline by Native Americans has been going on for many years, with many protesters being subjected to brutality from the police and the National Guard. This article reviews the history behind these protests as well as what the latest decision could mean for the future.

What is the Dakota Access Pipeline?

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,172-mile pipeline that is capable of carrying more than half a million barrels of oil per day. The project, worth $3.78 billion, which is also called the Bakken pipeline begins in the shale oil fields of the Bakken formation in northwest North Dakota and continues through South Dakota and Iowa to an oil terminal near Patoka, Illinois. The project was first announced in June 2014 with construction beginning two years later. By June 2017, the pipeline became commercially viable. 

Who are the stakeholders?

A protester holds a sign during a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline on March 10, 2017, in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

The partners in the Dakota Access Pipeline project include Energy Transfer Partners, Phillips 66, Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum. The pipeline is operated by Energy Transfer Partners. Of the total cost of the project, $2.5 billion was financed by loans, while the rest of the capital was raised by the sale of ownership in Dakota Access, LLC to Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum. The loans were provided by a group of 17 banks, including Citibank, Wells Fargo, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Mizuho Bank, TD Securities, ABN AMRO Capital, ING Bank, DNB ASA, ICBC, SMBC Nikko Securities, and Société Générale.

What benefits are the stakeholders banking on?

The 2010s shale boom in the United States led to the country being the largest producer of oil, surpassing even Saudi Arabia. That was, in part, due to a wave of new technology that allowed drillers to exploit the shale formation of the Bakken region, leading to an increase in production volume. The DAPL helped transport the Bakken oil to refineries and were touted as a more "environmentally responsible" transport system than railways. According to its official site, the construction of the pipeline helped create 8,000 to 12,000 jobs, which has in turn benefitted local economies.

Why is the Standing Rock Sioux tribe opposed to the DAPL?

While the DAPL promised the creation of jobs for locals, it was noted that instead of giving the promised jobs to locals, the company resorted to bringing in outside workers and setting up camps for them. But the major reason the Native American people protested the pipeline was because of the dangers it posed to their environment and sacred sites. 

The position of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is that the Dakota Access Pipeline violates Article II of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which guarantees the "undisturbed use and occupation" of reservation lands surrounding the proposed location of the pipeline. In 2015 the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, operating as a sovereign nation, passed a resolution regarding the pipeline stating that "the Dakota Access Pipeline poses a serious risk to the very survival of our Tribe and ... would destroy valuable cultural resources." The tribe claims that the pipeline could threaten their sole water source and that, more importantly, they were not consulted before the pipeline was approved.

Chanse Zavalla, 22, left, and O'Shea Spencer, 20, right, stand in front of the remains of a hogan structure. Campers set structures on fire in preparation for the Army Corp's 2 pm deadline to leave the Oceti Sakowin protest camp on February 22, 2017, in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.  (Getty Images)

The pipeline crosses right under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, half a mile north of the reservation. A leak or spill could send oil directly into the tribe’s main source of drinking water. The tribe points out that Dakota Access originally considered a route farther north, upstream of Bismarck, but the company rejected that route, partly because of the proximity to the state capital’s drinking-water wells. Moreover, the tribe argued that the pipeline runs through a stretch of land north of the reservation that contains recently discovered sacred sites and burial places.

The tribe and its legal team also said that less than 24 hours after evidence of the new sacred sites were provided to the court, the Dakota Access company began construction on those same sites, perhaps destroying many of them forever. Instead of waiting for a verdict as the tribe sought an injunction to halt construction, Dakota Access went forward and destroyed many of the sites. 

What happened to the protesters?

The Dakota Access Pipeline protests, also called the #NoDAPL protests, began in early 2016, started by youth from Standing Rock and surrounding Native American communities. Inspired by the young people's protests, several adults set up a water protectors' camp for direct action, spiritual resistance to the pipeline, cultural preservation, and defense of Indigenous sovereignty. It was as attempt to remove the protesters grew that international attention turned to the protests. In September that year, construction workers bulldozed a section of privately owned land the tribe had claimed as sacred ground, and when protesters trespassed into the area security workers used attack dogs which bit at least six of the protesters and one horse. Protesters were also blasted with water cannons during winter, which led to many being hospitalized due to hypothermia and other injuries.

Many significant personalities took part in the protests, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and actor Shailene Woodley, who was also arrested at the site of the protests. Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II was arrested and strip-searched while protesting

What has happened so far before this year's rulings?

Bernie Sanders at a rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline September 13, 2016, at Lafayette Square in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

After the Army Corps approved the portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline route that crosses the Missouri River at the Lake Oahe reservoir in July 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the group in August the same year. The tribe alleged that the Corps had failed to adequately consult tribe members before approving the pipeline, and had violated the National Historic Preservation Act when it "effectively authorized construction of the vast majority of the pipeline in and around federally regulated waters without any provision to ensure against destruction to culturally important sites." Later that month, Dakota Access LLC countersued leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux, alleging that protesters near the Lake Oahe river crossing have "halted construction activities" that had been scheduled to begin five days earlier. 

In September 2016, Judge James Boasberg temporarily halted construction on the portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline that crosses the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, pending a full decision on the tribe's earlier lawsuit against the Army Corps. In December that year, the group halted construction and said that it intended to issue an environmental impact statement with "full public input and analysis" before it approved the river crossing at Lake Oahe.

After Donald Trump took office as the president, in one of his first orders, he signed an executive memorandum instructing the Army to expedite the review and approval process for the unbuilt section of the Dakota Access Pipeline in January 2017. A month later, the Army Corps granted the easement allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Corps also issued a memo saying it intends to terminate the public comment period and rescind its notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact assessment.

DAPL leaks

Despite assurances from stakeholders that the pipeline would be constructed and using the latest technology, inevitably, pipeline leaks have been reported. In November 2017, “excessive vibration” caused 21 gallons of crude to leak out of a crack in a weld connection at one of the pump stations, which are situated along pipelines to keep the product moving and monitor its flow. Since the leak was contained at the site, it went unreported to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, although it did make it into a federal pipeline monitoring database.

The Dakota Access pipeline leaked at least five times in 2017. The biggest was a 168-gallon leak near DAPL’s endpoint in Patoka, Illinois, on April 23. According to federal regulators, no wildlife was impacted, although the soil was contaminated, requiring remediation.

What the new ruling means for the future

After Judge Boasberg's decision on July 6, Dakota Access argued that his order should be halted because “the Court’s decision requires Dakota Access to begin shutting down a major interstate pipeline.” He declined the request to immediately stay his decision but added that the court will “set a status hearing" on the matter when it receives certain documents from the company. 

The latest ruling is a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as well as environmental activists who feared the DAPL as an alternative to the Keystone XL pipeline. The extraction of shale oil from the Bakken formation has also been controversial due to its environmental impact.

For an already shaky industry that has been facing one of the worst downturns during the coronavirus pandemic, the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline -- even a temporary one -- could spell trouble for the country's shale industry. The loss of an economically viable transport mechanism could lead to a loss in market share and even impact oil prices globally.

The 2020 elections bringing in a new administration -- should former Vice President Joe Biden be elected -- could even turn the temporary shutdown into a permanent one. 

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