A Native American protest may be growing into a national movement.
WASHINGTON D.C. — Scores of supporters of Native American tribes that have for months protested an oil pipeline set to cross four states gathered here Tuesday as the push to stop the $3.8 billion project escalates.
The rally in the nation’s capital was one of hundreds of protests scheduled across the country against the Dakota Access pipeline. From San Diego to New York, events backed by environmental organizations including 350.org, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and others reportedly took place the same day. And Wednesday, opponents of the project will gather in front of the White House once again before they move to the nearby TD Bank branch to deliver a letter urging TD Securities, one of the pipeline’s primary funders, to cut off the project’s credit.
The coordinated rallies ultimately hope to pressure President Obama into stopping the Dakota Access pipeline just as years of protests pressured him to stop the Keystone XL in late 2015.
“This pipeline must be stopped,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), said during the rally that took place just across the street from the White House. “I am calling on President Obama today to ensure that this pipeline gets a full environmental and cultural impact analysis. In my view, if that analysis takes place, this pipeline will not continue.”
Obama was in Philadelphia, however, campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who fell ill over the weekend with pneumonia. So the president wasn’t in the city to hear the Native American prayer ceremony that kicked off the event, or the many speakers that repudiated fossil fuels and the Dakota Access pipeline before asking attendees to march to the front of the White House while chanting: “We are the people. You can’t ignore us. We will not let you build this pipeline.”
About as long as the Keystone XL, the 1,172 mile Dakota Access pipeline would be the largest oil line out of North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, one of the nation’s most active since the fracking boom of the mid 2000s. The pipeline would move more than half a million barrels of crude oil daily through the Dakotas, Iowa, and into a hub in Illinois.
But the pipeline also crosses multiple waterways, including the Missouri River, the longest river in North America. In Iowa, the project has incensed land owners now undergoing eminent domain. Meanwhile, a construction site in North Dakota, near the Missouri River which the pipeline is to cross, has become the focus of massive camp protests as the site is about half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation boundary.
According to the tribe, a spill would be catastrophic to the river and their water supply. The tribe has also long said the construction threatens sacred ancestral sites, and as a result it is suing the federal government for giving the developers the right of way.
The developer, Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, says the project is safe as it will use a 24-hour monitoring system that can detect minute pressure changes, and has shut-off valves that can be remotely activated in minutes if a leak happens.
Critics of the project haven’t been appeased. In fact, protests have been sparking in the past few months and intensified particularly in North Dakota as construction ramped up.
In a surprising move late last week, the U.S. government said it would not authorize construction of the pipeline on federal land near Lake Oahe — a North Dakota reservoir by the Missouri River — until agencies decide whether there’s a need to reconsider any of the previous decisions regarding the area. The government also asked the company to halt construction 20 miles east and west of the lake.
The Dakota Access pipeline is permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers and the four Midwestern states it is set to cross. Yet the pipeline lacks an easement for Lake Oahe, Earthjustice, which is representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in federal court, told ThinkProgress Tuesday.
The Obama administration move came minutes after a federal court declined the tribe’s injunction request, and about a week after Native American protesters in North Dakota clashed with pipeline workers and security personnel as crews building the fracked oil line bulldozed over documented sacred sites.
This was a major win for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and to some extent landowners, which so far failed to get state and federal courts to hear their pleas and pause construction as lawsuits move forward. However, while pipeline opponents have faced shortcomings within the court system, they are finding more support elsewhere.
Aside from receiving tacit approval from the Obama administration, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has also gathered the support of nearly 200 Indian nations, high-profile artists, and revered politicians like Sanders.
The tribe has even attracted the backing of city governments. Just last week the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Yet Seattle is not alone. The city of Bellingham, also in the state of Washington, as well as Portland in Oregon, St. Louis in Missouri, Lawrence in Kansas, and the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, have done the same.
Robert Wilson, associate professor at Syracuse University and an expert in environmental history, said the country may be witnessing renewed activism among marginalized groups. “This has echoes to the 1960s and 1970s, when African Americans and American Indians held a number of highly publicized protests to make their grievances more widely known,” Wilson told ThinkProgress.
He agreed this movement could possibly be the resurgence of the civic force that stopped the Keystone XL, but noted the coalition within both movements are different. “With the Keystone XL pipeline, Native Americans were only one group, and not even the most prominent group, opposing the pipeline,” said Wilson, adding “other groups such as white Nebraska ranchers and farmers, rural Texas landowners, and urban millennial activists with 350.org played perhaps a greater role” then.
Still, he said fossil fuel infrastructure development will remain contentious mostly because of concerns about climate change. “At a time when many Americans recognize the threat of climate change and the need to lower carbon emissions, further construction of these sorts of pipelines seems like a step in the wrong direction,” he said. “With political efforts to address climate change stymied by Congress, activists will likely continue to challenge this sort of oil infrastructure development.”
But Energy Transfer Partners is unlikely to back down despite the opposition. For one, the line is nearly 60 percent complete and construction continues across most of the privately-owned land under state jurisdiction. It also has the backing of labor unions in various states and many supporters who tout thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue.
On Tuesday, Kelcy Warren, Energy Transfer Partners chief executive officer, said the company is committed to bring the Dakota Access pipeline into operation and will meet with officials in Washington.
“Nearly the entire pipeline route in North Dakota — and the entire portion the protestors are focused on — is located immediately adjacent to an existing natural gas pipeline built in 1982,” Warren said in a memo that was distributed to news media. “The route also parallels a high voltage electric transmission line. This land has been studied, surveyed, and constructed upon — at least twice before — over the past several decades.”
After the memo was publicized the tribe quickly hit back with a statement. “It is unfortunate that the corporate world chooses to ignore the millions of people and hundreds of tribal nations who stand in opposition to the destruction of our lands, resources, waters and sacred sites,” Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said.