An Explainer on Everything That Happened at Standing Rock, From Start to Finish

Politics Features Standing Rock
An Explainer on Everything That Happened at Standing Rock, From Start to Finish

Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, made a major announcement: the Army will not approve the easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be drilled and built under the Missouri River under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. This is a huge victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, who have been protesting for months against the proposed construction of the pipeline just 0.5 miles from their reservation, and at a high-risk point for the tribe’s water supply. It appears that, barring further appeals and overturn by the Trump administration—which would be complex, costly and would require additional court approvals—the Dakota Access Pipeline will have to be re-routed away from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

The Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline have been a long and complex story. If you missed what has happening along the way—no shame, especially in the midst of an insane election—here’s a refresher on the whole situation:

What is the Dakota Access Pipeline? Who is building it?

Back in 2006, a bunch of oil was discovered in North Dakota. The North Dakota oil boom has made the state America’s #2 oil producer, trailing only Texas. But the North Dakota oil fields are very far from the U.S. network of oil refineries that convert crude oil into gasoline. That’s where the pipeline comes in. The Dakota Access Pipeline (also known as the Bakken Pipeline) is a 1,720 mile-long, 30-inch diameter pipeline being built at a total cost of $3.7 billion by a company called Energy Transfer Partners with the goal of transporting oil from the North Dakota Bakken and Three Forks shale oil production areas to oil shipping facilities in Illinois.

What are the advantages of the oil pipeline?

North Dakota has lots of oil in the ground, but it doesn’t do any good if you can’t get the oil to the oil refineries. This pipeline will be able to move lots and lots of oil. The company expects that the pipeline will be able to transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day, with maximum capacity of 570,000 barrels per day, representing approximately half of the daily production of the Bakken oil fields. (For comparison, as of November 25, 2016, total U.S. crude oil production was about 8.7 million barrels per day, so depending on the week, this pipeline could transport up to 6.5% of the total U.S. daily oil production output.) The company claims that transporting the oil via pipeline will be more cost-effective, more responsible, and safer than alternate methods of transporting oil, such as by truck or by rail.

Why were they trying to build the pipeline so close to Sioux tribal land?

Plans were originally considered for the pipeline to go north of Bismarck, the capital city of North Dakota, but the plan was rejected because of possible risks to the city’s water supply in case of a pipeline rupture or leak, as well as greater complexity of that route—crossing north of Bismarck would have required the pipeline to be 11 miles longer, and have multiple crossings of roads and waterways. So the pipeline company decided to build it 0.5 miles from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation instead.

Was the choice of the Standing Rock pipeline route racist in nature? Like, the planners decided that the (predominantly white) people in Bismarck had more of a right to clean water than the Standing Rock Sioux?

Well, it might not have been overtly racist in design, with evil racist villains cackling and twisting their mustaches, but it sure doesn’t look good, does it? Especially considering all the other bullshit America’s going through right now re: historically marginalized people and access to clean drinking water (see: Flint, Michigan).

Why are the Standing Rock Sioux opposed to the pipeline?

They feel like the pipeline is being forced upon them by a greedy oil company that doesn’t care about the risks to their water. They feel that the pipeline is a violation of tribal sovereignty. They say that their rights are not being respected and the pipeline is being rushed to completion without a fair hearing for the tribe’s rights or for the environmental impact and the potential risk to the tribe’s water supply. The protestors at the reservation call themselves “Water Protectors” because they are concerned about protecting the safety and cleanliness of their drinking water and their natural environment for the next seven generations, and beyond.

Has Paste Magazine published any eyewitness accounts of the situation at Standing Rock?

Yes! Here. We also interviewed a Methodist minister who was observing the camp as part of a volunteer trip to donate supplies, and he witnessed protesters being treated violently by the police—shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with high-pressure hoses in sub-freezing temperatures. The minister who witnessed the events at Standing Rock said:

The Natives who spoke when I was at Standing Rock wanted to be heard and believed. I had such a sense of people who have been ignored and abused over the centuries—ignored when they had needs, gifts, or grievances, and abused when they had something that powerful people wanted. But those are my words. What I heard were simple statements like “Water is something very sacred to us. The land is sacred,” Also, “All we want is clean water, why are you treating us like your enemies?”

But surely the pipeline company are a bunch of pros, right? There are lots of pipeline all over America, and there’s nothing to be worried about, necessarily; isn’t pipeline technology safe, efficient and necessary for transporting the oil that we all need to fuel our cars and power our modern lifestyle?

Actually, pipelines blow up, rupture and leak all the time. And this particular pipeline company has a dismal safety record—Sunoco Logistics, future operator of the Dakota Access Pipeline, has had more than 200 crude oil pipeline leaks since 2010, more than any of its industry peers, according to analysis by Reuters. Anyone whose water supply is being traversed by the Dakota Access Pipeline is right to feel uneasy, to say the least.

Why are the Standing Rock Sioux so skeptical of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the federal government’s process for regulating and approving it? Does the U.S. government have any past history of failing to honor treaties or otherwise break their promises to indigenous people?

Oh boy, does it ever! White America has treated indigenous people like garbage for 500+ years, from Columbus’s “voyage of discovery” (a more accurate name would be “voyage of slavery, torture and mass murder of indigenous people”) to Wounded Knee and beyond. Canceling the easement for this pipeline and giving the Standing Rock Sioux what they were asking for is one of the first “nice” or “fair” things that the federal government has ever done for American Indians. Thanks, Obama! (No literally: thank you to the administration of President Obama for resolving this dispute in a relatively peaceful, sane, level-headed, fair-minded way. Trump would have sent in the Marines by now.)

What’s with all of these white people traveling to Standing Rock? Are they a bunch of hippie agitators who are narcissistically turning a native protest into cultural appropriation camp, or are they actually doing good?

Standing Rock has become a rallying point for thousands of environmental activists of all races and cultures, including activists from other countries, who have traveled to Standing Rock to donate supplies, work at the protesters’ camp, and otherwise show solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux protesters. 2,000 U.S. military veterans recently arrived at Standing Rock to form a human shield against police who were facing down the protesters.

Cynics would say that these outside activists are a bunch of flakey hippies who are trying to turn Standing Rock into Burning Man North, and it’s possible that some of these earnest activists are causing more than their fair share of disorder and delay, but on the whole it seems that the outside activists’ help has been welcomed by the Sioux and that the support of activists from “non-native” America has helped to get results. At the very least, they’re trying to make a positive difference to address America’s historic mistreatment of indigenous people, instead of leaving the Sioux alone to be ignored, trampled upon by the government and forgotten once again.

(Christ, what kind of question is this? Have you ever faced down a greedy oil company backed by violent police spraying you with firehoses in wintertime? What have you ever done to help historically oppressed people in their hour of need? Stop being such a cynical jerk, get off the couch, and give some money to the Standing Rock Sioux!)

So is the Dakota Access Pipeline cancelled now? Or is it still going to happen?

Most of the pipeline has already been built; the area of the pipeline near Standing Rock Reservation was part of the overall pipeline but the delay of this one small portion is unlikely to affect the eventual completion of the whole project.

Is there a Republican who is filling the role of “outrageously evil corporate mouthpiece”?

Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Ryan!

We think Parker Molloy put it best:

What are some lessons that we can learn from the victory of the Standing Rock Sioux over the Dakota Access Pipeline?

1. Protests work. Peaceful, committed protesters, working together to organize and mobilize, in person and online, can in fact stand up to powerful interests and lobby the government for redress of grievances—at least until Donald Trump takes office in January and turns America into a garish dystopian hellscape (moreso). But still: power in a democracy ultimately resides in the people. No matter who’s in office in Washington, no matter how hopeless the cause might look, it’s always worth organizing with like-minded people to peaceably air your grievances.

2. Kudos to the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies. America has treated indigenous people very, very badly for many, many years; can’t we just let them have this one thing? Can’t we just reroute the pipeline away from their land and water? I’m happy for them, and I don’t care if that makes this article “biased.” Screw you. Go write your own damn article about why the Sioux are wrong and why they should be grateful for white people building a stupid, filthy pipeline through their water supply.

3. Wait, why are we still building oil pipelines? Oil is the energy supply of the past; renewable energy is the future! Elon Musk and Tesla are trying to build mass-market electric cars and roofs with built-in solar panels. Germany, another highly industrialized “advanced” economy, now gets 27 percent of its energy from renewable sources like wind and solar. This study found that the entire U.S. economy could be powered by renewable energy by 2050. Oil prices have been in decline in recent years due to sagging global demand and excess production capacity; the Dakota Access Pipeline might be obsolete in a few years. Instead of screwing around with leaky oil pipelines, America should be moving more proactively to make oil obsolete. Instead of sinking more money into dangerous, dirty energy sources like oil and coal, America should be more heavily subsidizing the green energy revolution that can give us all a safe, plentiful supply of energy, combat climate change, and power our homes, cars, and smartphones for decades to come.

So is the Standing Rock pipeline dispute really “over” now? What happens next?

Maybe, maybe not. This decision by the Army is definitely an encouraging sign and a big victory for the Standing Rock Sioux, but Energy Transfer Partners could still sue to overturn the decision. Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the tribe, was quoted in The Guardian as saying that Energy Transfer Partners “can sue, and Trump can try to overturn…But overturning it would be subject to close scrutiny by a reviewing court, and we will be watching the new administration closely.”

So if you are a supporter of the Standing Rock protests, definitely take today as an occasion to celebrate. But prepare to be vigilant and monitor future developments, especially after Trump takes office.

And if you haven’t already, why not make a donation to the Standing Rock Sioux? White people especially should give more money to indigenous people; it’s the least we can do for the long legacy of injustice and oppression of indigenous people committed in our names. Let’s give them some money.

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