Dakota Access Pipeline: A Dark Chapter in a Grey Area

Eoghan Lordan explains why there are such vehement protests agains the DAPL and surmises that there will continue to be problems

A month on from the divisive election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, there was further controversy in the US this week, with the announcement that the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will not now go ahead as planned. The controversial pipeline route, which had been 85% completed, had been designed to run beneath the Missouri River, channelling oil from the North Dakota region to Illinois. However, in the face of intense protests from Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American activist groups, as well as environmentalist campaigners, the US Army Corps of Engineers has declined to issue a permit to DAPL, allowing them to work their cable beneath the main water source of the Standing Rock Sioux. The Commission will now, instead, assess different routes, and carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment, with a view to establishing a less controversial alternative route. Although this is being celebrated as a victory by many Native American groups, who call this “Barack Obama’s farewell gift” to the Sioux people, this episode is yet another dark chapter in the grey area of American – Native American relations. In addition, although the threat posed to the Sioux people may have been rebuffed for now, the threat to the environment is still a very real one.

Like with all political issues, there is clearly no clear-cut formula for dealing with environmental situations such as these. On the one hand, as reporter Tomi Lahren stated on her online chat show, the DAPL pipeline could have created huge employment opportunities for North Dakota, while simultaneously generating some badly needed revenue for North Dakota’s largely agricultural economy. This income could have been used to further develop existing services in North Dakota, and with wise management, North Dakota really could have taken advantage of its natural resources to huge benefit.

However, as great as the tangible economic benefits sound, that only tells half of the story. Though the planning of the project began back in 2014, the pipeline, planned to run from north-west North Dakota to Illinois, faced two key, interlinked issues. The potential threat posed to the local environment by the DAPL and secondly, the encroachment of the pipeline on the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota.

The history of the relationship between the United States Federal Government and the Sioux Nation is a grim and a bloody one. Not to bore people with the details, but briefly, by virtue of the 1868 Fort Larmerie Treaty, a permanent territorial arrangement was established between the US Government and the Sioux tribe. However, in 1877, led by General Custer, the US military discovered large amounts of gold in the Black Hills region. The 1868 Treaty had established that this land belonging to the Sioux, as the Black Hills were held sacred to them. Notwithstanding the Treaty, the US Government made several attempts to lease the Black Hills from the Sioux, all of which were rejected. This led to a series of conflicts known as the Sioux Wars between the Plains tribes, on one side and the US Government, on the other. These wars culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Battle of Wounded Knee, ending in a disastrous loss of life for both sides, as a result of near-genocidal acts being committed by each side. Following the war, under an 1877 agreement, which the Sioux tribe claimed that they were coerced to enter in order to avoid further conflict, the US Government took possession of large parts of Sioux land, while establishing smaller reservations for the tribe today, which still exist today.

Since then, relations between the Sioux and the US Federal Governement have been difficult. The Sioux have rejected all Governement attempts at monetary compensation for the loss of the Black Hills, insisting that only the return to them of their traditionally sacred lands will be considered as adequate compensation. While the US Government, and the American people, acknowledge the wrong done to the Sioux, (though, for the most part, reluctantly), the problem is more complex than that. The violation of the Fort Larmerie Treaty occurred in the 19th century and though Native claims for return of their land are valid, they must compete with the equally valid property claims of American people living in the seized lands, that were born long after these wrongs were committed. So as you can see, it’s a very difficult political situation to begin with, before any environmental issues are considered.

The historical context of the North Dakota region is important in order to fully appreciate the current DAPL dispute. The dispute which occurred in North Dakota wasn’t just about the very legitimate concerns of the Sioux people and environmental campaigners, regarding the very real threat posed to water supplies by the DAPL – it’s much more. The route for the DAPL did not even cut through Sioux lands – but it did cut open the stitches of a raw, open wound. Disillusioned at the prospect of its territory being encroached upon yet again, the Sioux tribe, joined by other Native American protests groups, attacked the Government in the most effective way possible – by making enough noise and drawing enough public attention that the US Government would have no option but to re-assess its plans.

And upon first glance, you’d have to agree with the tribe’s concerns, right? Although the pipe was to be located 28 metres beneath the riverbed of the Missouri River, and was said by DA CEO Kelcy Warren to be a safer method of transporting oil than by rail or by road, the US has been rocked by a litany of oil spills in the last few years. Last year, John Oliver pointed out on the Last Week Tonight Show that oil extraction companies operating in North Dakota are responsible for oil spills all the time, emitting, according to the New York Times, 18.4 million gallons of harmful chemicals into the environment of North Dakota between 2006 and 2014. Non-surprisingly, these companies then seek to avoid liability through the use of subsidiary companies and subcontractors, leading to expensive and lengthy Erin Brockovich style litigation, in order to achieve restitution. You only have to consider the recent Manila Bay debacle in the Phillipines, or the oil spillage in the Gulf of Texas to realise the disastrous consequences of oil spillages for the environment, and the extreme difficulties involved in rectifying them.

Another case in point is the recent Flint River drinking water crisis in Michigan, in which drinking water thought to be safe ended up being corrosive, resulting in large amounts of lead from pipes being absorbed into people’s bloodstreams. Although the Flint River case didn’t have anything to do with oil pipelines, it goes to show that industries can get it very wrong sometimes. Take all that into account and it’s not hard to see how the Sioux people had very rational reasons for wanting to preserve their environment and their people.

But even if the decision of the US Army Corps not to award the permit is upheld on appeal, this is a pyrrhic victory for the Sioux people, that ultimately, doesn’t do their cause that much good.

Firstly, as identified by online website WIRED, although the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is safe, the pipeline, (which is supposedly 87% complete) still needs to cross a river in order to reach its destination in Illinois. The US Army corps decided not to grant a permit for the pipeline to cross the Missouri river at the planned point, but it did not prohibit the project, which has already cost over $3 billion dollars in taxpayer’s money, from being completed elsewhere. Therefore, celebrations by environmentalists may be premature, as the exact same danger to the environment, and threat to human life, will almost definitely continue to exist, just in a different place, with different people. Granted, in light of the fact that the pipeline was initially meant to travel past the State capital, Bismarck, before being re-routed to the less-populated Standing Rock area, it is entirely valid for protestors to claim a victory here. However, the issue relating to the threat to the environment and to human health, has not been solved, but rather instead has been postponed.

In addition, as US Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated, this episode also will do nothing to resolve “the complicated and painful history between the federal government and American Indians.” This entire episode has served to highlight yet another failure of both the US Government and tribes themselves, to work together in order to reach a solution for both sides. As one protestor said to the Guardian, the tribe was extremely proud of the victory as it had been “stepped on for so long” by the Government and refused to be “Trumped.”

While some may see this as a victory for the environment, many non-native North Dakotans see it as the opposite, estimating a loss of $55 million each year, that the project is delayed, as well as up to 10,000 jobs, not to mention the additional costs needed to complete the project. Valid, competing interests between parties were not resolved, leading yet again for a need for on-site protests, involving police, water cannons and rubber bullets – a sad endorsement of native and non-native relations in the US.

So while this may be seen as a victory to be celebrated, in respect of the environment, it’s a lot less clear cut than that. Once again, a divisive issue has been handled by dragging it through the dirt, and displaying it for the whole world to see, through the media, rather than actually resolving the intertwined issues in a sterile, equal manner, before a mediator. In light of this whole episode, you’d have to wonder if both side will ever learn to meet halfway.