The Dakota Access Pipeline: What You Need to Know

How protests against an oil pipeline turned into a national fight for Indigenous rights.

Indigenous water protectors hold up signs and banners during a large protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The U.S. Capitol building is visible in the distance.

Indigenous water protectors lead a march against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Washington, D.C., on March 10, 2017.


Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For nearly a decade, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has sparked national conversations about the dangers of fossil fuel infrastructure to public safety and the unjust treatment of Indigenous Peoples in the United States. The controversy began escalating back in 2016, when DAPL received its first permits for construction. Soon after, large-scale, grassroots protests spread the word that a proposed oil pipeline was threatening the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Activists quickly dubbed DAPL the next Keystone XL, a different controversial pipeline project that environmentalists fought against for 11 years before the pipeline’s owner finally killed the project in 2021. The widespread media coverage of the seven-month protest at Standing Rock—along with advocacy efforts from high-profile celebrities, politicians, and social media campaigns—and the violent response from authorities kept DAPL in the spotlight even after the pipeline began operating in 2017.

The fight over DAPL, however, is far from over. The pipeline has faced numerous legal challenges and still lacks a necessary easement and an adequate environmental impact statement (EIS) from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps), the federal agency that maintains infrastructure and regulates construction activity in certain U.S. waters. Here’s what you need to know. 

What is DAPL?

DAPL is a 1,172-mile-long underground pipeline that transports crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region to an oil terminal in Patoka, Illinois. There, it connects with the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline, which brings oil down to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Together, the two pipelines make up the Bakken Pipeline. 

The most contested section of DAPL is its crossing just upstream of the Standing Rock reservation under Lake Oahe, a reservoir section of the Missouri River. A leak or spill along the route risks contaminating the reservation’s water supply and sullying culturally sacred sites. 

Since 2017, additional pump stations have increased the pipeline’s capacity from 500,000 to 750,000 barrels of oil per day. According to DAPL’s owner, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the pipeline could eventually support 1.1 million barrels daily, which the Illinois Commerce Commission gave the go-ahead for in 2022. With more capacity comes more environmental harm. Not only would DAPL’s climate footprint expand as the amount of oil it transports climbs, but the risk of a pipeline rupture also grows. 

A map of the Midwest with a dark line stretching from North Dakota to Illinois to represent the Dakota Access Pipeline. An inset zooms in on where the pipeline crosses Lake Oahe.

The 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline crosses Lake Oahe within a mere mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation’s current boundaries.

DAPL and the legacy of environmental racism

ETP began planning for the pipeline in 2014 during the “Bakken oil boom,” when crude oil development was rapidly expanding in the region due to its enormous oil reserves and the emergence of hydraulic fracking technology. Prior to DAPL, companies shipped oil out of the region by rail on “bomb trains,” another dangerous method of transporting fossil fuels. 

ETP’s initial proposal had the pipeline crossing the Missouri River approximately 10 miles north of North Dakota’s capital, Bismarck. The Corps rejected this proposal in 2015 after opposition from Bismarck residents, due to the route’s proximity to the city’s water supply. Yet the Corps ignored Standing Rock’s same opposition to the current route. Critics see this rerouting—or the government’s prioritization of drinking water for the largely white communities of Bismarck over that of an Indigenous reservation—as an act of environmental racism. 

Indeed, for the Standing Rock Sioux, the DAPL issue is yet another reminder of how the U.S. government has exploited Indigenous Peoples over the centuries. DAPL crosses Lake Oahe within a mere mile of the reservation’s current boundaries—with current being the key word here. In 1851, the first Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by several tribes and the U.S. government, designated new boundaries for Sioux territory (a mere fraction of the Sioux tribe’s historic territory). By 1868, a second Fort Laramie treaty formally established what was then the Great Sioux Reservation. About a decade later, however, Congress seized the reservation lands after the U.S. Cavalry discovered gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and later divvied up the Great Sioux into five separate reservations, one of which is Standing Rock. 

The Sioux territory that is now Standing Rock lost even more land in 1944, when the Corps took 87.5 square miles via eminent domain as part of a larger project to construct five dams and reservoirs along the Missouri River. “The Oahe Dam destroyed more Indian land than any other single public works project in the United States,” wrote historian Michael L. Lawson in his book Dammed Indians Revisited. The dam’s construction displaced communities as it flooded the lands under what is now Lake Oahe, scattering tribal members and severely affecting their access to fertile lands, hunting and fishing grounds, medicinal plants, cultural resources, and each other—the effects of which have been felt for decades. Then, enter DAPL, with its threats to destroy even more, including Standing Rock’s water supply. Moreover, had the federal government honored either of the Fort Laramie treaties, the location of DAPL’s Oahe crossing would be on official tribal land. 

The fast-tracking of DAPL

Before DAPL construction could proceed, the four states it would pass through—North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois—needed to give the pipeline the OK, which they did in 2016. But because DAPL is a domestic pipeline built mainly on private land, it did not require an overarching federal permit. Only the sections of the pipeline that would cross federally regulated waters needed federal approval as required under the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. Including its path under Lake Oahe, DAPL crosses waterways 202 times.

Construction machinery lifts a pipe intended for the Dakota Access Pipeline onto a larger stack at a staging area.

Pipes intended for DAPL at a staging area in South Dakota in May 2015


Nati Harnik/AP Photo

This is where the permitting process starts getting complicated. Instead of assessing the pipeline as one major construction project, the Corps took a fast-tracked approach and evaluated each water crossing individually, through a permitting process called Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12). While quicker, the process tends to result in far less scrutiny and allows the Corps to lose sight of a project’s full impact. This is why general permits like NWP 12 are supposed to be limited to activities with minimal risks to nearby bodies of water. By creating NWP 12 and applying it to projects such as DAPL, the Corps circumvented both the more robust project-specific environmental impact analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the public review process required by the Clean Water Act. Thus, oil and gas pipeline companies have been able to take advantage of the shortcut for even major pipelines. 

In addition to NWP 12, construction under Lake Oahe required an easement from the Corps that would allow the pipeline to cross federally managed land on both sides of the reservoir. 

Despite protests from Standing Rock and concerns shared by three other federal agencies (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation), the Corps continued to move forward with the approval process. By July 2016, the developer had received most of the permits required to start construction after the Corps conducted an environmental assessment (a less rigorous level of NEPA review). The assessment stated that DAPL would not cause any significant environmental impacts—not a surprising finding considering that ETP helped prepare the assessment on behalf of the Corps.

The Standing Rock protests

The DAPL standoff started in early 2016 when dozens of members of the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River Lakota, and Rosebud Sioux tribes formed water protector camps near the pipeline construction site at Lake Oahe. Over the following months, the camps slowly swelled, propelled by the viral social media hashtag, #NoDAPL, and hosted thousands of people at their peak attendance in September. Supported by other tribal governments, politicians, environmental advocacy groups, civil rights groups, and celebrities, the DAPL protests became the largest Indigenous demonstration in decades. 

A view from behind a group of water protectors holding up protest signs as security forces line up on a hill above them

Water protectors confront security forces at Oceti Sakowin Camp outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Thanksgiving Day in 2016.


Brian Adams

But the peaceful protests met with violence in the fall when local police and private security hired by ETP clashed with the water protectors at one of the campsites established on the company’s property. The water protectors had been attempting to block the construction work in various ways, including chaining themselves to heavy machinery and equipment. Video footage showed the private security force pepper-spraying people and unleashing guard dogs into the crowds, and later, images of the police using water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades also flooded the media. After hundreds of arrests and injuries over the course of the year, the camp eventually disbanded and the last of the water protectors left the premises in February 2017.

DAPL in court

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, represented by Earthjustice, sued the Corps in July 2016 for violating the Clean Water Act, NEPA, and the National Historic Preservation Act and requested an emergency stop to construction. According to the lawsuit, the violations stemmed from the Corps’s failure to adequately consider the environmental and public health impacts of DAPL before approving it.

Two months later, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Corps was not obligated to conduct a full environmental impact statement since most of the pipeline was built on private land. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied Standing Rock’s appeal the following month. Yet later that day, the Departments of Justice, the Interior, and the Army declared that construction wouldn’t go forward until further review. Their statement, however, asked only that ETP “voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.” The developer did not volunteer to do so. 

The crude oil starts flowing

A win for the activists finally came in December 2016 when the Corps denied the easement needed for the Lake Oahe crossing, due to the project’s impact on treaty and tribal water rights. The Corps announced that it would conduct an EIS and, feeling pressure from widespread protests, said it would also explore alternative routes for the pipeline. 

The victory, however, was short-lived. Soon after coming into office in 2017, President Trump issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the Corps to expedite the DAPL easement approval. The Corps canceled its EIS and approved the easement two weeks later. By April of that year, ETP finished construction on DAPL, and the pipeline began transporting oil under Lake Oahe in June. 

An aerial view of the snow-covered construction site for the final phase of the Dakota Access Pipeline

A construction site for the final phase of DAPL at Lake Oahe in February 2017


Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP

Standing Rock continued its fight in court. In 2020, a district court ruled that the Corp failed to meet the requirements of NEPA by providing an inadequate environmental review—noting specifically the failure to recognize issues regarding “leak-detection systems, operator safety records, adverse conditions, and worst-case discharge.” According to the ruling, because the pipeline remains “highly controversial” under NEPA, the Corps must prepare an EIS. This presented a highly unusual scenario since an EIS typically occurs before a project begins, not three years after its completion.

The courts eventually revoked the Trump-era Lake Oahe easement but ceded the decision to the Corps on whether to allow the pipeline to continue operating while it conducted its EIS. Even though DAPL no longer has an easement and is technically operating illegally on federal property, oil continues to run through the pipeline today.

DAPL’s environmental impact

Climate change

The burning of fossil fuels is by far the largest contributor to the climate crisis. The Corps estimates that the amount of crude oil currently passing through DAPL each year would emit about 121 million metric tons of greenhouse gases when eventually refined and burned—roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of 29 million passenger vehicles. However, according to the RMI’s Oil Climate Index plus Gas database, the emissions from burning that amount of Bakken crude, when accounting for methane and nitrous oxides, would be 3.5 times higher. 

To help avoid the worst impacts of climate change, scientists agree that it’s crucial for the United States, as one of the world’s top emitters, to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero is achievable if the country takes steps to invest heavily in renewables over the next couple decades and drastically reduce its consumption of fossil fuels. Instead, ETP wants to increase DAPL’s capacity to make sure its $3.8 billion investment pays off. Significant profits would keep business humming, resulting in more and more drilling. Massive fossil energy infrastructure projects like DAPL simply have no place in a clean energy future as they lock in decades of future emissions. 

A potential oil spill 

Pipelines that span thousands of miles, connected by welds that are prone to failing, are more likely to eventually leak. The risk of a pipeline rupture or spill is one of the primary concerns for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and anyone else who cares about water quality and wildlife in the Missouri River. Making matters worse is ETP’s dismal safety record. 

The Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has issued 106 safety violations to ETP since 2002, including failures to conduct corrosion inspections, to maintain pipeline integrity, and to repair unsafe pipelines in a timely manner (within five years). ETP owns more than 125,000 miles of petroleum pipelines throughout the country, about 11,000 of which transport crude oil. According to a report published by Greenpeace and Waterkeeper Alliance, over the span of 15 years, ETP had 527 pipeline incidents that spilled 3.6 million gallons of hazardous liquids. Of these incidents, 275 contaminated soil and 67 sullied water resources. 

A large pond turns brown as thousands of gallons of crude oil pollute the water

In March 2014, the Mid-Valley Pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners, spilled 21,000 gallons of crude into the environment, including Ohio’s Oak Glen Nature Preserve.



While ETP’s website states that DAPL is “safe, efficient, and environmentally sound,” the pipeline not only had a small spill before its official operations even began, but it also leaked at least five additional times in 2017. ETP has also claimed that the longest time between the detection of a leak and shutting the pipeline down would be a mere nine minutes. In a report submitted to the Corps in 2018, Standing Rock called this “completely unrealistic,” given the company’s inadequate emergency response plans and the complex nature of stopping the pipeline’s flow. (The multistep process involves finding the leak and then closing the emergency flow restriction devices one by one.) And because the control systems don’t always detect the leaks, operators in those cases wouldn’t know of a breach until someone near the spill happened to notice it.

The ongoing fight over DAPL

The Corps published its draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) in September 2023—six years after the pipeline started operating. The statement evaluates five possible scenarios for the pipeline moving forward: abandoning it, removing it, rerouting it, granting the easement as is, or granting the easement with additional conditions.

According to NRDC experts, the DEIS largely shrugs off climate impacts due to its inappropriately narrow review. Specifically, the Corps overly focused on temporary construction impacts instead of the major climate consequences that will come down the road from burning the oil that the pipeline transports. The Corps even went so far as to say that removing the pipeline would cause more climate damage than keeping it running, which flies in the face of common sense.

Meanwhile, the DEIS acknowledges that the social cost of the carbon emitted by DAPL oil would cost billions of dollars in damages every year and reinforces the idea that an oil spill would be devastating to nearby communities. Yet it dismisses that valid concern by saying the probability of pipeline rupture is low and the oil could simply be cleaned up should it occur. The cherry on top is that the DEIS was developed by a company, Environmental Resources Management, which has ties to the petroleum industry. (Despite the obvious conflict of interest, it remains a common practice for outside entities to prepare environmental assessments and environmental impact statements for the Corps.) During the public testimonies held in Bismarck last November, activists and tribal members echoed these concerns and called for the Corps to reject the pipeline altogether.

The Corps says it will complete its final EIS on DAPL by the end of 2024.

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