The final stage of construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline Project has become of the subject of fierce debate and legal battles in the US. But how did this project to construct an oil pipeline escalate into a deeply divisive issue about the need for infrastructure versus protecting the heritage of US indigenous nations?
What is the pipeline?
The £3bn Dakota Access Pipeline Project (DAPL) is a 1,886km-long underground pipeline designed to transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day, with capacity up to 570,000 barrels per day. The pipeline itself is 30cm to 76cm in diameter. It will be a minimum of 91cm underground.
The route goes from the Bakken/Three Forks formations in North Dakota to a terminus near Patoka, Illinois. It will travel through the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.
The aim of the project is to aid the US domestic oil transportation, thereby increasing use of domestically produced oil rather than relying on imports. The pipeline also aims to cut congestion on rail and roads.
The pipeline is being built by Dakota Access, a subsidiary of energy developer Energy Transfer Partners. The construction contract was awarded to Michels Pipeline Construction and most of the construction has now been completed. Dakota Access says the project will generate up to 12,000 jobs.
Dakota Access Pipeline map
Source: Energy Transfer Partners
What are the protests about?
The pipeline’s route crosses less than a kilometre from the border of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, which is home to Dakota and Lakota people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The tribe is currently located in central North and South Dakota. The tribe said the pipeline would cross its traditional and ancestral lands and jeopardise sacred sites, could harm burial grounds and poses a risk to its drinking water. Other tribes have joined the protest with concerns about the future of their own lands.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has disputed the authorisation from the US Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) in July for the construction of the pipeline across Lake Oahe. It said the Army Corps failed to properly consult with the tribe during the initial stages.
A protest camp against the pipeline’s construction has now been formed called The Oceti Sakowin Camp. The camp itself has, so far, promoted peaceful protests; however, some wider protests and police responses have been violent.
Was this resolved during the consultation stage?
No. The tribe said that the initial draft environmental assessment from 9 December 2015 did not mention that the route of the pipeline is near the reservation, which it said is against environmental policies. The tribe is undertaking a legal bid to undo the pipeline’s approval. The Army Corps only had authority to grant part of the pipeline’s approval, concerning the parts that covered federal lands, but this included the section of the route under Lake Oahe.
The final environmental assessment published by the Army Corps says that authorities made a “good faith effort” to consult with the tribe, including more than 250 formal government-to-government consultations via meetings, site visits and emails. It says a reasonable response and action plan has been developed, including monitoring systems and shut-off valves. It argues that the alternative of not building the pipeline would be more harmful because of increased truck and rail traffic.
The issue has been raised at US governmental and international levels. In September the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, called on the US to halt the construction.
“The tribe was denied access to information and excluded from consultations at the planning stage of the project and environmental assessments failed to disclose the presence and proximity of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation,” she said.
Alternative routes were considered, but discounted because of other risks, including proximity to other infrastructure or drinking water risks.
Dakota Access said on its website: “During the initial conception stage of the pipeline and its proposed route, we selected a route that avoided and minimised the crossing of sensitive environmental resources as our base routing guideline. This, coupled with avoidance of residences, defines the route initially and then the route is field verified by civil surveys and environmental studies that further identify sensitive areas for the project to avoid.”
What’s happening now?
The Army Corps is now at odds with Dakota Access over the issue. Army Corps had asked Dakota Access for a voluntary shutdown by stopping work on private land for a 30-day period to allow for de-escalation of tensions. This followed the Army Corps, the US Department of Justice and the Department of Interior issuing joint statements requesting the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 32km east or west of Lake Oahe so that issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations could be reviewed. Dakota Access did not agree to this request.
Commanding colonel John W. Henderson said in a statement earlier in November: “We are concerned over recent statements from DAPL regarding our request to voluntarily stop work, which are intended to diffuse tensions surrounding their operations near Corps-managed federal land until we have a clear path forward.
“After meeting with key leaders in the state of North Dakota, we are confident that they share our commitment to diffusing tensions and maintaining public safety. We again ask DAPL to voluntarily cease operations in this area as their absence will help reduce these tensions.”
Dakota Access said it has now completed construction of the pipeline on private land on each side of Lake Oahe and has mobilised horizontal drilling equipment to the drill box site in preparation for the tunnelling under Lake Oahe. It says Army Corps has already given the necessary approvals.
However, the Army Corps has refused to give approval for the construction of the last piece of the pipeline, pending further discussions. In a statement on Monday (14 November) it said: “While these discussions are ongoing, construction on or under Corps’ land bordering Lake Oahe cannot occur because the army has not made a final decision on whether to grant an easement. The army will work with the tribe on a timeline that allows for robust discussion and analysis to be completed expeditiously.”
Energy Transfer Partners followd this by saying it was seeking federal court intervention to stop what they described as “political interference” in order to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline. It said: ” In these actions, Dakota Access Pipeline is requesting the court to confirm that the Corps has already granted all of the relevant authorizations and given Dakota Access Pipeline its right-of-way to finish the pipeline beneath the federal land that borders Lake Oahe in North Dakota as a result of its prior actions in granting a permit to allow Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River at Lake Oahe.”