The Protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline Brings Up Many Questions.
The protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux near Bismark, North Dakota has generated a lot of buzz on social media, mostly against the pipeline and with the tribe. On the surface this looks like evil, greedy oil company against environmentally conscious Native Americans. But there are a lot of issues to considered both pro and con that need to be considered and the costs of building the pipeline and the costs to not build a pipeline.
I don’t pretend that I am an expert on all of this, but these are the things that I am noticing that make issue not so clear cut. Here are few random thoughts.
Pipelines are infrastructure. It’s important to remember that an oil pipeline is not just about some greedy oil company sending their poison accross the land, pipelines are part of the national infrastructure. Just as our network of highways get goods from one part of the country to another and how the internet makes our connected age possible, pipelines get oil to markets. Like a lot of our national infrastucture, oil pipelines are aging. A good chunk of our pipelines are about 60 years old. Having aging pipelines means those pipelines are more susceptible to spills. Standing Rock isn’t replacing a pipeline, but it is part of the national infrastructure moving goods around.
Pipelines or Trains? Cancelling a pipeline means choosing an alternative, because unless people are going sit out in the oilfields, the oil is going to get transported. Pipelines are safer (not safe) than the alternatives. One of those alternatives is train. Our current rail network isn’t designed to carry the large amount of oil from the oilfield to the refinery. Also, many of the rail cars used aren’t really designed to carry this cargo. The risks are great. The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster of 2013 killed 47 people while they slept. Later that year, 400,000 gallons of oil burned after a derailment near Cassellton, North Dakota. Another derailment happened in 2015 in Heimdal, North Dakota. I’ve noticed in the past few years that oil trains run through North Minneapolis where I live. A derailment or explosion could cause major damage and loss of life.
Pipelines of course are not completely safe. Spills are common (think of the 2010 oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan). But oil trains can cause a major tragedy in a town or city.
Infrastructure has a dark side. When politicians talk about infrastructure, it is always in bright and sunny terms. Maybe you saw that video from the US High Speed Rail Association a few weeks ago that talked about building a rail network in America. But think about what it will take for such a network to come online. You would need to basically buy rights of way accross the country. People will have to sell their houses and move to make way for the railroad.
The thing is, we tend to forget that people factor into infrastructure and when it costs people, those costs tend to fall on those who are either poor and/or persons of color. The Dakota Access Pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri River in Bismark, but people in area, a mostly white population forced the route to not come near the city. So plan B was running it close to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
There has been a sad history of communities of color being impacted by infrastructure. I live in the Twin Cities and most people are familiar with the story of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. Rondo was a primarily African American area in St. Paul and it so happened to be right on the path of the then-proposed Interstate 94. Folks in the area had to move and see a neighborhood destroyed for the freeway.
The African Americans in the area really didn’t have much of a say when it came to I-94. But the story was a little different just a few miles away. A segment of Interstate 35E south of downtown St. Paul is unlike most freeways. The speed limit is reduced and it’s only two lanes in both directions. Someone told me it was that way because the people in the area (who were white) who would be affected made demands that had to be met for the freeway to go through. Like Bismark rejecting the pipeline, the residents of the white neighborhoods south of downtown St. Paul were able set their own terms.
The Army Corps of Engineers has an important role in the building of Dakota Access. In a letter sent to the Corps by the conservation group ConservAmerica, the Corps seemed to cut corners with the permitting process. They didn’t take into account the environmental risks facing the tribe. ConservAmerica references a letter sent to the Corps earlier this year by the Environmental Protection Agency laying out these very concerns. For whatever reason, the Corps seemed to ignore the concerns of the EPA.
As I said before, infrastructure projects can place heavy burdens on communities of color. This is something to remember not just when it refers to pipelines, but also to “fun” projects like high-speed rail. None of this means that these projects can’t happen; but it does mean that government has to do a better job at hearing the concerns of all Americans, not just the ones with paler skin.
Whose land is it? One of the issues that I am still trying to figure out is some of the claims by the Standing Rock Sioux about land claims. Some have said that the pipeline doesn’t cross Standing Rock territory and that is true, technically. But the tribe says the land where the pipeline goes is part of their territory. This is from an Atlantic article in September showing that the land may have been taken from them unfairly over a century ago:
The land beneath the pipeline was accorded to Sioux peoples by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. Eleven years later, the U.S. government incited and won theGreat Sioux War, and “renegotiated” a new treaty with the Sioux under threat of starvation. In that document, the tribe ceded much of the Laramie land, including the Black Hills of South Dakota, where many whites believed there to be gold.
In the decades that followed, other land previously controlled by the Sioux was doled out by the federal government as homesteads to Native families; when those farms failed, the government often repossessed the land.
In cases like this, the US government has tried to follow the policy of consulting tribal governments. But according to the Tribe, they weren’t consulted until very late in the process:
It is this right — the right to be consulted — that the Standing Rock Sioux and their legal team assert was infringed. The Army Corps of Engineers must approve and permit any interstate pipeline. The tribe alleges that not only was the permitting of Dakota Access rushed, but also that the tribe itself was not included as partners through the historical surveying process. Only near the end of the process, when approval seemed inevitable, did North Dakota state authorities approach the tribe with a couple areas of concern. They did not present plans for the pipeline at the beginning, as government-to-government negotiations should entail.
In conclusion… There are a lot more issues I could talk about. What I am interested in is how to solve it. This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. The oil needs to get from the Bakken oilfields to refineries in a way that is safe(r). But the people who are most affected by the pipeline have to have a say, especially a group that has not always had good relations with the federal government. In less polarizing days, there could be a way to satisfy both sides. My concern is that both sides may not want to work to a fair solution. There are many who think the pipeline has to go, period. There are also those that blame the tribe for not meeting with Corps when meetings were set up.
There no easy answers here. Which is why I wrote this article; because things are not so cut and dried. Sometimes things that benefit society come at a cost for some. Sometimes we have to remember and respect groups that have long been marginalized by our own government. Sometimes we have to find ways for commerce to get to places in the most sustainable way possible. Will we be able to balance all of those needs and find a way where the tribe and Corps can work together?
Time will tell. The whole world is watching.