It was the classic midsummer sneak: issue permits for a controversial project when you think people aren’t paying attention. In late July, in a move that reverberated from North Dakota to Illinois and then around the world, the Dakota Access Pipeline secured most of the final permits it needed to be built via a fast-tracked federal permitting process led by the Army Corps of Engineers. Apparently it didn’t matter to the Corps that Native American tribes along the pipeline’s route had raised serious objections to the project and made reasonable requests for consultation and environmental review. Nor did it matter that three federal agencies—the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation—raised similar concerns. No, instead the Army Corps plodded ahead, relying on an environmental assessment performed by the pipeline builder, and issued permits allowing the pipeline to cross at least 200 waterbodies, including the Missouri River.
But people were watching. Sensing that the Army Corps would once again ignore their requests, the Standing Rock Sioux launched a campaign against the pipeline. They hoped to capture the attention of the national and international media, decision-makers in Washington, D.C., and the public. Their call: show us some respect, show our land and water some respect. As protesters gathered near the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri Rivers in North Dakota, Native youth began an epic 2,000-mile run to Washington, D.C. to present a petition with 140,000 signatures to U.S. officials. Meanwhile, lawsuits were filed, celebrities and late night TV hosts took up their cause, and major news outlets slowly began to pay attention.
Today, thanks to the courage and leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux, construction on the pipeline has been halted while hundreds of native and non-native people from around the world have flocked to the Camp of Sacred Stones in an extraordinary show of solidarity. In fact, this is the first time in 150 years that so many members of different tribes have come together in common cause. Nearby in Iowa, protesters have continued their multi-year fight against the pipeline and recently won a court battle over their right to protest after Dakota Access' request for a restraining order was denied.
Energy Transfer Partners, a Texas-based pipeline company that got its start with natural gas, first made its plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline public in 2014, when it proposed to move oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region to a transfer point in Patoka, Illinois. From there, Dakota Access would connect into the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline, which brings oil to the Gulf Coast. Capable of carrying up to 570,000 barrels per day (bpd), the mammoth project was proposed at the height of the Bakken boom and was promoted—as pipelines always seem to be—as a way to ensure that the U.S. used more domestically produced oil. Today, with the pipeline permitted but unbuilt, that promise has already started to waver with the talk of exports (not to mention the buy-in of a Canadian pipeline company, intent on getting Canadian oil to the Gulf Coast).
With climate change has come rising awareness of the heavy toll the oil industry has taken on our global climate, and with that awareness has come increased scrutiny of every move they make. Opposition to Dakota Access isn’t a surprise, but the issues it raises create much-needed attention on the treatment of Native communities in the United States, not to mention the long term impacts of new fossil fuel infrastructure on our shared natural resources, especially fresh water and the climate. But none of this was given meaningful attention during the pipeline’s permitting—calls for consideration of tribal concerns and major environmental impacts were ignored.
To get from North Dakota to Illinois, Dakota Access must cross the Missouri River, a fact alarming in itself given recent pipeline disasters in Saskatchewan, Montana, and Michigan. But what makes Dakota Access especially problematic is that it was rerouted to cross the Missouri River just a half mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation without any analysis of the possible impact such a move would have on the people living just downstream. Meanwhile, the drinking water supplies for nearby tribal nations, not to mention North and South Dakota, are also at risk if the pipeline were to spill anywhere near the river. Instead of heeding these potential issues, the Army Corps ignored them and published its final decision on the project a few months later.
All of this was made possible because the Army Corps used what are known as nationwide, or general, permits allowed under the Clean Water Act. These permits allow for certain types of projects—those that are deemed to be discreet, with minimal immediate or cumulative environmental impacts—to be permitted without environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. However, in recent years, the Army Corps has begun misusing these permits by applying them hundreds or thousands of times for single projects. This fact makes a farce of the both the Clean Water Act and NEPA, in that it allows the Army Corps to divide up a single large project into hundreds or even thousands of individual, supposedly disconnected projects.
Support the Standing Rock Sioux
Fighting the oil industry isn’t easy, and the Standing Rock Sioux have shown remarkable perseverance throughout their ongoing peaceful protest. While not everyone can travel to North Dakota to show their support, there are ways to provide support to those who have put their lives on hold to call attention to this critical issue. Meanwhile, NRDC and others are working to fix the flawed process that fast-tracked Dakota Access by calling on the Army Corps to either rescind “Nationwide Permit 12” or reform their use of it to ensure it doesn’t continue being misused.