People, planet, and the path ahead
A line of cars wait to get in to the Oceti Sakowin camp where people gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D., Sunday.
David Goldman/AP | Caption

Protesters' Dakota pipeline win may be both short- and long-lived

A shift in thought

The decision to block construction of a controversial portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline could be overturned by Donald Trump. But it could also kindle new activism.  

The Dakota Access Pipeline could get rerouted, but Wilma Teton’s friends are still on their way to join the protest opposing it.

The US Army Corps of Engineers blocked construction of a key section of the Dakota Access Pipeline Sunday, marking a monumental – though likely short-term – victory for Native American protesters and thousands of allies who have flocked to North Dakota to protest the project this year.

It is this sense of only temporary relief – with the Army Corps of Engineers pledging to look at alternative routing for a project that's already mostly built – that has Ms. Teton’s friends heading from across the country.

With the mercury plunging and the North Dakota snows deepening, Teton and her husband, who live in nearby Fort Yates, N.D., have been making almost daily visits to the camp to bring food, firewood, and clean laundry. There are thousands at the camp, the Shoshone tribe member says, "and more people are coming."

The protesters' fight isn’t over, but winning a halt to the existing route has undeniably emboldened them. And, although it’s too soon to know, it appears possible that they have not only drawn sympathy and support from beyond the Great Plains, they may also be inspiring a new generation of environmental activism from Indian country to the political left.

True, the circumstances here are unusual. The stand-off on the Missouri is partly a moment where a narrative aligned in a rare way that captured national attention. The struggle combined the simple goal of protecting water, the urgency of the pipeline bearing down on the river, and the resonance of historically disenfranchised native Americans on horseback confronting armored police.

But in the process, it has also energized people beyond state or national boundaries, and shown what some see as a potential model.

“The good thing for me about the protest was framing it as a water versus oil issue, rather than a local issue, because that will be a confrontation we have over and over again,” says Kevin DeLuca, an associate professor at the University of Utah who researches environmental movements.

“All those explorations of oil threaten water at same time that water is becoming a more precious and endangered resource for people,” he explains. And where climate change may seem like a distant threat, access to clean drinking water is one of the most pressing problems a human can face.

“If you can’t have safe water, if you have lead in your water, nothing else matters at that point,” Professor DeLuca says.

Larger than one tribe

The planned route would have seen the Dakota Access pipeline cross under the Missouri River less than a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Members of the tribe, whose leaders fear the pipeline could rupture and contaminate a key water source, have been camping and protesting nearby since February, calling themselves “water protectors.”

But the protest has grown larger than one tribe. Thousands have joined them at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers, including members of indigenous tribes from around the world, to create perhaps the largest gathering of Native American tribes in modern history.

Sympathizers have rallied in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities nationwide. And most recently, an estimated 2,000 military veterans have descended on the snow-blanketed hills near Bismarck, N.D., willing to serve as human shields as protesters faced possible eviction from federal land.

Recent months have seen a number of clashes between protesters and police, with the vast majority of protesters being nonviolent, while police used water cannons in subfreezing temperatures last month. The Army Corps announcement headed off the potential for another clash Monday, the deadline set by the Corps for protesters to leave the land it controls on either side of the Missouri.

An Army Corps statement said that "the best way to complete that [pipeline] work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing."

Standing Rock tribal chairman Dave Archambault II issued a statement that struck a conciliatory tone: "When it comes to infrastructure development in Indian Country and with respect to treaty lands, we must strive to work together to reach decisions that reflect the multifaceted considerations of tribes.” And by video, he said the Army Corps decision prevents the company from trying to drill under the river, as the options are being reviewed, so “it’s OK to go home” during the bitter winter weather.

What happens next

Many protesters want to see construction canceled outright. Yet the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline was scheduled to be finished last month and is 92 percent completed. Expected battles over its completion could set the stage for one of the first challenges of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company developing the pipeline, blasted the announcement as "a purely political action" taken by the Obama administration to curry favor with "a narrow and extreme political constituency."

We "are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting," the company added in a statement. "Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way."

But the determination of pipeline opponents has also become clear. The main Oceti Sakowin camp has been growing in recent weeks as the pipeline inched closer to the Missouri, including the recent influx of military veterans.

Climate activist Bill McKibben has said Standing Rock could mark a turning point in climate activism, writing that indigenous groups have “managed to build not just resistance to a project, but a remarkable new and unified force that will, I think, persist."

“This is a big step forward in showing what can happen when tribes step up and stand up for their rights collectively,” says Garrit Voggesser, national director for tribal partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation.

Tribes “have always been involved, but we’re seeing a real increase in the weight of their positions,” he adds. “It’s really attracting more people and getting more people active.”

First Nations groups are already discussing forming “Standing Rock North” in response to the Canadian government's recent approval of an oil pipeline running to the coast of British Columbia. Tribes recently scored a victory there blocking the construction of a large coal export terminal.

The widespread public outcry that ultimately led President Obama to block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline last year was one thing, but this latest pipeline win was on another level, according to Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network.

"Previous success on pipelines in Canada and the United States has been accomplished in the permitting process of projects. This is one that’s being put into the ground right now," he told the Monitor in October. "We're making history right now."

Where Trump stands

The pipeline, which seeks to connect North Dakota oil fields to an existing pipeline nexus in Illinois, would transport up to 570,00 barrels of oil a day to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Energy Transfer Partners has also said the project would create thousands of local construction jobs and millions in tax revenue.

Its fate could rest in the hands of President-elect Trump, who spoke during his campaign of supporting the fossil fuel industry, and said last week that he supports completing the pipeline.

He also appears to have financial interests in the pipeline. He once owned between $500,000 and $1 million of shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company building the pipeline, but has since sold the shares, his spokeswoman Hope Hicks said. And as of his most recent disclosure statement in May, he owned $100,000 to $250,000 of stock in Phillips 66, which has a 25 percent stake in the pipeline, The Washington Post reported.

If Trump does continue to support the pipeline, he will be applauded by Americans, including many in North Dakota, who see oil and gas development as a source of jobs and economic growth. But he’ll also confront a diverse opposition, one now emboldened by the belief they can not only fight but win.

"It's not just Indians that are coming to this realization that we've got to secure our drinking water," Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, told the Monitor in October, referencing the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich. "It's just where the country and the planet is moving now."

Mr. Voggesser points to data showing that almost two-thirds of Americans are concerned about global warming, the highest proportion since 2008.

“We have questions about what’s going to happen in the new administration, but the data does show that people are aware of climate change,” he says. “That awareness is something that any administration is going to have to consider.”

[Editor's note: This story was updated with new reporting on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.]