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3p Weekend: Your Cheat Sheet to the Dakota Access Pipeline Conflict

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you an easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

The big news item this month is the ongoing dispute over the controversial Dakota Access pipeline. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein called the conflict "one of the defining climate justice fights in the United States." But many Americans still aren't sure what all the fuss is about.

Don't want to be the last one to get the skinny on the story? We've got you covered. Read on for the need-to-knows.

What is the Dakota Access Pipeline?

The planned Dakota Access pipeline would extend 1,168 miles across North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. Energy Transfer Partners and its subsidiary, Dakota Access LLC, plan to complete the pipeline by the end of this year at a cost of $3.8 billion. In 2015, they acquired permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cross jurisdictional waters, and from the respective state public utility agencies to construct the project.

The companies' stated purpose is to carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields of northwest North Dakota to a hub in Patoka, Illinois. Once completed, the pipeline will have a transportation capacity of over 450,000 barrels a day, according to Dakota Access.

What's the benefit?

"The goal in building this pipeline is to move that crude oil to domestic refineries more safely and at a lower cost than the current alternatives," says Dakota Access. Dubious grammar aside (more safely?), environmental advocates say the company hasn't done enough to show a public need for the pipeline that would justify potential risks to water resources or infringement on land rights.

A 2014 study commissioned by Dakota Access touts the economic and employment benefits of the project -- saying it will generate $1.9 billion in labor income and $5 billion in production and sales in the four states.

Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson told the Des Moines Register he suspects some of the numbers were overstated. (With a company report of this kind, that's no surprise.) And while he acknowledged employment and economic activity will increase in his state, he underscored that it won't last long. "They don’t hang around," he told the paper on Thursday.

For now, construction workers are clocking 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week, to complete the four-state pipeline by winter. And they're reportedly earning a good living -- with hourly wages ranging from $21 to $53, plus benefits, overtime and per diem pay, reports the Des Moines Register.

What's the conflict?

More economic activity and more jobs? What could be the problem? As it turns out, a whole lot.

For starters, the planned pipeline would pass within just half a mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Native American tribes and their allies say this close proximity would put sacred sites at risk and pose a threat to the tribe’s drinking water in the event of a spill.

The Missouri River supplies drinking water to 17 million Americans, including the Standing Rock Sioux. In addition to water risk, environmental advocates balk at the idea of spending billions on new oil infrastructure when climate scientists say we need to keep the majority of our reserves in the ground.

The Standing Rock Sioux opposed the pipeline from the start. In 2014, the tribe began to form organized protests -- which rapidly grew as pipeline construction neared the reservation this summer. Representatives of more than 280 Native American tribes have now participated in the occupation, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein wrote in an op/ed on the Hill. Thousands more, including Stein and her running-mate Ajamu Baraka, joined the tribes in solidarity and in opposition to the project.

Native American tribes and environmentalists aren't the only stakeholders upset over the project. Land owners across the four affected states fought against Dakota Access for its use of eminent domain to build on their land without consent, to little avail, reports the Des Moines Register.

Tensions reach a boiling point over the Labor Day weekend

The Saturday before Labor Day, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe issued a statement saying building crews destroyed “[sacred] places containing ancient burial sites, places of prayer and other significant cultural artifacts."

The tribe had already filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers to stay the project. And the demolition came only a few days ahead of a decision by the courts, leading advocates to say the desecration of burial grounds was meant to silence opposition and stop the protests. "They came in on a holiday weekend and destroyed the site,” said the tribe's attorney, Jan Hasselman.

Following the demolition, tensions between protesters and pipeline workers reached a fever pitch. Reports emerged of company security guards using pepper spray and attack dogs on protesters, and injuries were reported on both sides.

The long-running independent news program Democracy Now! was one of only a few media outlets present, but its coverage quickly caused a media windfall. The program's footage of the protests was rebroadcast across popular outlets including CBS, NBC and CNN -- bringing the conflict to the national spotlight.

High-profile arrests draw attention

Dozens were arrested as protests unfolded in North Dakota. And those who chained themselves to equipment may even face felony charges, according to local news outlets.

But heads really started turning last Thursday, when Morton County, North Dakota, issued an arrest warrant for Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. The charge -- criminal trespass, a misdemeanor offense -- stemmed from the program's coverage in North Dakota over the Labor Day weekend.

Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights said: "This is clearly a violation of the First Amendment … an attempt to repress this important political movement by silencing media coverage."

The same county also issued arrest warrants for Jill Stein and her running-mate, Ajamu Baraka.

So, where does the pipeline stand now?

Last Friday, a federal judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux's request for injunction to halt construction on the pipeline. But moments later, the Obama administration took action.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the Departments of Justice, Army and Interior halted construction on the pipeline and called for national reform to “ensure meaningful tribal input” on infrastructure projects. Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was elated.

“Our hearts are full. This an historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and for tribes across the nation,” he said in a statement via Earth Justice, which represents the tribe alongside Hasselman. "Native peoples have suffered generations of broken promises, and today the federal government said that national reform is needed to better ensure that tribes have a voice on infrastructure projects like this pipeline.”

Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, was far less pleased. In a statement released four days after the stay, Warren called concerns about water risks "unfounded" and said "multiple archaeological studies" found "no sacred items" along the pipeline route. "However," he continued, "misinformation has dominated the news, so we will work to communicate with the government and media more clearly in the days to come." He also asked supporters of the project to contact their representatives to get construction going again. You can read his full statement at Valley News Live.

Despite Warren's claims, advocates remain confident in a desirable outcome for the Standing Rock Sioux. "The Corps never considered the cumulative impacts of this massive project, nor was there any examination of whether there is any public need for this pipeline that may justify its risks," Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and legal director for Waterkeeper Alliance, told TriplePundit in an email.

"We expect after good-faith reconsideration by the agencies that the Corps will, at a minimum, (1) require Dakota Access to apply for individual Clean Water Act section 404 permits; and (2) withdraw its Finding of No Significant Impact and require the preparation of a full environmental impact statement" for the project.

How this will all play out remains to be seen. TriplePundit will continue to follow the story as it develops.

Image credits: 1) 2) and 3) courtesy of Joe Brusky via Flickr

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni