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Standing Rock on Shaky Ground

By Igor Greenwald on November 3, 2016

It’s amazing how crowded the bus can get when the trip is near-instantaneous and free and the destination an appealing fantasy.

It started late Sunday as friend after Facebook friend announced their presence at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, the flashpoint for protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

The nearly completed 1,172-mile pipeline is meant to carry crude from North Dakota to Illinois, for transfer to other pipes supplying Gulf Coast refineries. The Standing Rock Sioux and their environmentalist allies have spent months protesting plans to lay the Dakota Access across the bottom of the Missouri River just north of the reservation, claiming the pipeline will harm historical and sacred sites, in addition to endangering the tribe’s drinking water source.


Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

After a federal judge refused to stop construction in September, the Obama administration suspended a permit Dakota Access had already received from the Army Corps of Engineers and ordered the agency to conduct a review. The protests, meanwhile, have escalated into increasingly violent confrontations between the activists and law enforcement officers from seven states. More than 400 protesters have been arrested and more than a few people on both sides injured. The state has spent $8 million to police the protests.

It is against this backdrop that a viral Facebook post this week encouraged pipeline foes to check in at Standing Rock on the social network, purportedly to prevent the local sheriff from using Facebook to “target” the activists. The sheriff’s department quickly denied it was doing any such thing and none of the activists camped at Standing Rock claimed authorship. By Tuesday afternoon more than a million Facebook users had checked in at Standing Rock, which has a population of 8,250 scattered across the reservation’s more than 3,500 square miles.

Checking In, Not Checking Facts

In many ways, it was the perfect engagement campaign for a movement based on an emotional appeal of standing with Native Americans against Big Oil. Most supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux see the choice as so obvious they haven’t bothered to research the specifics of the case, or the tribe’s claims. Checking in is a lot easier than sweating the details.

For instance, none of my many liberal friends knew that, far from shutting out the Sioux from a token review, the Army Corps of Engineers bent over backwards to get the tribe’s input at the very outset of a rigorous permitting process, only to be ignored or rebuffed. You can find the specific dates of the unanswered letters and missed opportunities for comment in the ruling of the federal judge who deemed the Sioux case too weak to warrant the preliminary injunction sought by the tribe. The Standing Rock Sioux “largely refused to engage in consultations,” concluded the judge, an Obama appointee.

Pipeline foes, notably former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, have also asserted that peaceful Native American protesters have been attacked by police while occupying federal land. In fact, federal authorities have sanctioned the protesters’ presence on the land controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. The clashes with the police have taken place on nearby private land earmarked for segments of the pipeline not under federal jurisdiction. And activists’ attempts to occupy those properties have been anything but peaceful, resulting in damage to company equipment and injuries to the security contractors guarding it as well as law enforcement personnel, in addition to the protesters.

The tribe has also claimed that the pipeline would pose an immense risk to its water intake on the Missouri 25 miles to the south. But in fact that intake is scheduled to be decommissioned in the near future, replaced by a new water treatment plant a further 45 miles downriver. That plant and the associated water pipelines were financed with $29 million of federal grant money.  

Having ignored these inconvenient facts, the pipeline protesters also fail to address the larger issue. Which is simply that traveling to Standing Rock, in real life or virtually, requires the fuel and electricity supply secured by hundreds of thousands of miles of energy pipelines spanning the continent.


Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

Without those pipelines, Americans simply could not maintain the standard of living to which we’ve become accustomed. We certainly couldn’t produce more than half of the crude oil we consume, and the recent surge in domestic oil production is directly responsible for today’s low gasoline prices.

Since energy pipelines are, at worst, a necessary evil, it stands to reason we need a fair siting and permitting process to make sure their risk is reduced and the burdens shared. Which is precisely what federal law requires, and many other Native American tribes along the Dakota Access path used it to secure numerous route adjustments.

Saving Face and Clinton Votes

The Standing Rock Sioux chose not to work within that system in opposing a pipeline that does not cross their territory and that they very likely lack the legal standing to block. Some of their allies now claim that history and the process do not matter because the cause of halting pipelines and the hydrocarbon drilling they enable is a just one.

But this is not the Keystone XL, another highly controversial pipeline, which President Obama blocked simply by withholding his approval. Dakota Access is a largely completed pipeline that already had all the necessary permits when the administration suspended the one issued by the Army Corps of Engineers.

As we informed subscribers to The Energy Strategist and MLP Profits at the time, the legal case for blocking the Missouri crossing is so weak that the delay could only serve as a face-saving maneuver. Notably, it has forestalled conflict between the administration and its environmentalist supporters that might have lost some votes for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

And in fact, in a rare comment on the pipeline controversy this week, Obama said the government planned to let the process “play out for several more weeks” as the Army reviews its prior permitting decisions and considers a pipeline route change.  “This can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans,” said the president.

It always could have been, had there been sufficient mutual trust and good will. Now there is likely to be a cosmetic change allowing the pipeline to be built and infuriating the protesters pushing unrealistic demands. But that will come a few weeks after the election.


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  1. avatar
    Doc B Reply December 9, 2016 at 1:31 AM EDT

    This article on Dakota Access Pipeline was highly prejudicial and told only half the story. Strategists need to provide complete picture to allow potential investors to make good decisions. Following pertinent facts were omitted:
    1. water protectors, as they prefer to be called were illegally brutalized by police/company security who used attack dogs (see blood on dogs nose and mouth) concussion grenades (illegal), water cannon, mace, sticks and rubber bullets. None Native-American female in twenties had most of soft tissue of her arm blown away from the elbow to the hand by a concussion grenade. FBI took samples of explosive residue on her clothing and tissue from damaged arm. Bad strategy for any company to respond so violently to nonviolent praying protestors .Difficult to achieve “mutual trust and goodwill” under these circumstances. Company lost credibility and support because protests so brutally handled by the company. The impact on support of future pipelines is unknown.
    2. Water protectors dressed in common clothing with no protective gear and during warmer months some of men were shirtless. Police/security were militarized with helmets, shields, sticks, mace, etc. Hundreds of water protectors were treated for injuries due to rubber bullets and hypothermia caused by being sprayed by water cannons in below 32 degree temperatures. Hard to imagine how police/security could have been injured under these circumstances.
    3. Could easily be argued that clean water is a resource more valuable than fracked oil, particularly with the current oil glut. Article underestimates the probably of oil leaking into the river, especially since Energy Transfer Partners’ pipelines have one of the worst records in the industry. Appeal of water protectors and environmentalists not entirely emotional but factual. Look at oil leak statistics for this pipeline company and the video footage available of the “confrontations” between protectors and police. Readers have a right to all the facts before they make a decision.

  2. avatar
    msursa Reply November 4, 2016 at 1:57 PM EDT

    This is all pretty talk from someone who most likely lives miles away from a pipeline..Pipelines burst..The point of all this “appealing fantasy” is to leave the anachronistic era of fossil fuels..”Necessary evil” is the spin doctor talking and for the “sheeple” who follow them blindly over a cliff looking for one last buck..Drink water from an oil-tainted source and get back to your readers a tad more enlightened..

    • avatar
      Terrence Morton Reply November 6, 2016 at 10:24 PM EDT

      But at least you admit what it is all about. Not about property rights, not about sacred lands, not about due process or the law. It is about using force to make sure others live the way you want them to.