A glut of oil and pipelines

ETP’s move to halt construction near the Missouri — even as work continues elsewhere along the pipeline route — was surprising, given that the company has all of its permits to begin construction. ETP is one of the largest pipeline carriers in the world and Dakota Access is a big project: a 30-inch steel tube running 1,172 miles under fields and rivers from the Bakken shale oil fields of North Dakota to the pipeline junction in Illinois. According company statements, the line will have the capacity to move some 570,000 barrels of fracked crude oil per day — potentially half of the Bakken’s current daily production.

Dakota Access comes as the shale industry struggles under a glut of oil that has crashed prices but that it cannot afford to stop producing, said Lorne Stockman, research director at Oil Change International, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank and advocacy group critical of the fossil fuel industry. The Bakken is a large reserve of about 3.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As in other shale fields, the Bakken’s oil comes in the form of tiny droplets locked up in rock, which are liberated through fracking—the injection of a proprietary mix of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into the rock that has raised concerns about water pollution. According to Stockman, fracking has itself been catalyzed by a flood of cheap credit since the 2008 economic crash; because fracked wells tend to peter out much more quickly than traditional wells (they typically last less than seven years), shale oil companies can find themselves having to constantly exploit new holes to pay off the ones they have already drilled, a position critics call a “drilling treadmill.”


A map shows the intended route of the Dakota Access pipeline from the Bakken shale oil fields of North Dakota to Illinois. Map courtesy of Dakota Access LLC via Wikimedia Commons
A map shows the intended route of the Dakota Access pipeline from the Bakken shale oil fields of North Dakota to Illinois. Map courtesy of Dakota Access LLC via Wikimedia Commons

The glut in shale oil overwhelmed pipeline capacity in places like the Dakotas and Appalachians. Dakota Access is one of several large pipeline projects aimed at getting oil and gas out to where it might fetch more money — others include the Constitution Pipeline in the Northeast and the Mountain Valley Pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia.

And like those other pipelines, Dakota Access is facing heavy resistance from a disciplined and versatile network of rural farmers, indigenous groups, and climate activists worried about their water and rising temperatures and angry about the company’s use of eminent domain to take land.

For the Sioux, as for the Nebraska farmers who fought Keystone XL, the main issue is water. ETP touts the thickness of its pipe and the modernity of its leak detection systems, but these haven’t stopped other new pipelines from leaking. For example, this spring TransCanada’s Keystone 1 dumped 400 barrels of oil on a farm in South Dakota. According to TransCanada, if a leak is slow enough — below about 2 percent of flow capacity — sensors can’t detect it. By the math of Ken Ilgunas at Time, that means that from the Keystone 1, which moves about the same volume per day as ETP hopes the Dakota Access soon will, a “slow leak” could potentially dump as much as 420,000 gallons a day without sensors detecting it.

Tribes unite

Standing Rock’s leadership did not respond to Mongabay’s calls for comment. However, the tribe has been consistent and vocal in arguing that the Army Corps of Engineers did not live up to its obligations, under the treaties the Sioux signed with the United States government, to consult them on matters that affect their land.

“[T]he tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity,” Standing Rock’s chairman Archambault wrote in an August 24 op-ed in the New York Times. “Perhaps only in North Dakota, where oil tycoons wine and dine elected officials … would state and county government act as the armed enforcement for corporate interests.” Earlier this month ETP sued Archambault and others for interfering with its right to construct the pipeline, and North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple responded to the protests by declaring a state of emergency.

In their effort to kill the “black snake,” Sioux leaders and environmental groups have pursued a multi-front strategy. For the last two years, Sioux leaders have warned that Dakota Access poses a threat not only to the tribes but to the millions living in the Missouri River drainage. Social media campaigns like ReZpect Our Water and a Change.org petition won over 200,000 signatures and support from celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio. The Sioux have been anchoring their media campaign with “actions,” such as young activists running a 2,000-mile relay, in the manner of old messenger runners, to Washington, D.C to protest in front of White House and deliver a petition to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Then there is Standing Rock’s legal case seeking to overturn the Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting for the pipeline. A federal judge in Washington, D.C. heard the case on Wednesday, August 24, and a decision is expected September 9.

If the ruling goes against them, Sioux activists said, they will use nonviolent resistance to block the construction site access road, and for that they will need people. “We need so many people here the sheriff’s department can’t arrest us all,” Braun said.

Her friend Mekasi Camp agreed. A member of the Ponca Nation, Camp is director of a newly formed group called Bold Oklahoma, an offshoot of Bold Nebraska, which played a critical role in organizing farmers against Keystone XL. “This isn’t an Indian uprising, this isn’t a native issue,” he told Mongabay. “This is a human rights issue. Eighteen million people get their water from this river. We’re standing up for them and for the silent nation that doesn’t have a voice, protecting the water for all living things.”

On August 9, Camp drove up to the Sacred Stones camp directly from the Sun Dance ceremony in Rosebud, South Dakota. After four days of fasting and dancing he had been about to drive his family back home to Oklahoma. Then he turned his phone on. There were a string of messages from Braun urging him to come to Standing Stones camp — construction was about to start on the pipeline. “So we headed north instead of south,” he said. “I’m putting out a challenge to all those 18 million people: are you gonna let us stand here alone, or help protect your water and your children?”

ETP declined Mongabay’s request for an interview. Instead a representative sent a statement that downplayed both the scope and the seriousness of the protests, calling them “unlawful given that we have the necessary permits and approvals to work at this site.” The statement added that the protests do “not impact any of the construction going on at any of the other areas in North Dakota or the other states along the route.”

Land rights movement

The Sioux reaction to the pipeline took the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC), which permitted the pipeline in the state, by surprise. “We had a fifteen month hearing process,” Julie Fedorchak, the PSC’s commissioner, told Mongabay. “We had 25 hours of landowner testimony. We invited them. And in all that time we didn’t hear a peep out of them. It’s frustrating that they went this route.”

Fedorchak acknowledged the need to move off fossil fuels. “But that 500,000 barrels a day won’t stop being produced if we don’t build the pipeline. It will just come out by rail,” which carries the risk of explosions and spills, she said.

This, of course, has been the main argument in favor of pipelines, including Keystone XL. But for landowners, the use of existing rail has one significant advantage over building new pipelines: companies don’t have to seize land to do it. In the Dakotas, Iowa, and other states, pipelines are considered public utilities, like roads and power lines. This allows corporations to take land by eminent domain from people on the route who are not willing to sell, which has become a key source of opposition to pipelines among farmers across the country.

Thanks to the PSC’s hearings process, Fedorchak said, North Dakota landowners had their concerns addressed and not one farmer in the state had his or her land taken along the Dakota Access route. “Had the tribes come to our hearing and objected, we would have pursued them, and had a conversation on what to do to fix the problem. It might not have changed anything, but it would have been more productive. [ETP is] half done building the pipe today. This is not a productive way to develop infrastructure.”

In neighboring Iowa, ETP faces much more resistance from white farmers. “Energy Transfer Partners hit the ground running with real slick agents here,” said Ed Fallon, a retired Iowa lawmaker who now runs Bold Iowa (part of the same network as Bold Nebraska and Bold Oklahoma). “[The agents] made it seem inevitable that they would get the land. They said, ‘sign it or the company is going to take your land and you won’t get much money.’”

“About three quarters” of the farmers on the route feel they signed under duress, Fallon told Mongabay. And ETP took land by eminent domain from about 50 farmers. It was an unpopular move: according to a Des Moines Register poll, even when 57 percent of Iowans supported the pipeline, only 19 percent thought it should be built by eminent domain.

“People are seeing that the land is more and more vulnerable. No one would have dreamed ten years ago that a private company from Texas could come to Iowa and take land for private business,” Fallon said. “But the Sioux are showing the way, defending their land.”

“There will be people standing in front of bulldozers” to support landowners who lost their property to ETP through eminent domain, he said, adding that about 1,000 people have signed Bold Iowa’s “Pledge of Resistance” agreeing to use civil disobedience to halt the pipeline when construction reaches their farms. According to the Des Moines Register, the route is already nearly a quarter complete in the state.

The resistance in North Dakota and unrest in Iowa coincides with a global ferment around indigenous and farmer land rights in the face of corporate infrastructure and extractive projects. Communities demanding land sovereignty have protested in places as disparate as Canada, Peru, and Cambodia. An international coalition called Land Rights Now is fighting to title all traditional indigenous land in the world. And a $36 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the coast of British Columbia has been held up by an indigenous group claiming the land and occupying the site.

Like others of these groups, the Sioux justify their protest by appealing to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees “free, prior, and informed consent” for indigenous groups to projects that affect them. The United States, like Canada, is one of the few countries that has not signed the declaration. On August 20, the Sioux and the San Francisco-based International Indian Treaty Council sent an urgent request to four UN Special Rapporteurs for human rights, asking them to intervene in the pipeline.

“This pipeline’s construction is being carried out without the Tribe’s free, prior and informed consent in direct contradiction to their clearly expressed wishes,” the letter states before laying out a long list of what Standing Rock members see as violations of their treaty rights. Sioux leaders like Archambault have been pointed about the role the Dakota Access fight plays in what they see as a long history of exploitation by outsiders, and if a spill came, and the Sioux were left without drinking water, the letter authors imply, it would be a crime not only legally but morally.

“This submission calls attention to the urgent and worsening threats and violations of the human rights and ways of life of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who depend greatly for their means of subsistence and their physical and cultural health upon the Missouri River,” the letter states. “To poison the water, is to poison the substance of life. Everything that moves must have water. How can we knowingly poison water?”

Children listen to speakers at the camp on August 20, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson for Bold Alliance
Children listen to speakers at the camp on August 20, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson for Bold Alliance
Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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