What’s behind the oil pipeline standoff in North Dakota: a short guide

protesters standing rock Standing Rock protesters, (PhotoL Still from KX TV, North Dakota)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota – For months, tensions have mounted between protesters and law enforcement officials over the fate of crude oil pipeline not far from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

Last week, they boiled over as officers tried to force the protesters out of an area of private land where they had moved one of their camps. Police sprayed a crowd of about 400 people with tear gas and water as temperatures dropped below freezing. Police described it as a riot, while protesters said they had been peaceful.

One woman was hospitalized here in Minneapolis after the melee and 300 more were treated for injuries. More than 400 people have been arrested since April, when protestors began to gather.

Citing public safety concerns, federal officials over the weekend said they plan to close access to a campsite where demonstrators have gathered near the Standing Rock reservation. The governor of North Dakota followed up Monday by ordering an evacuation of the protest site, but sais there were no plans for “forcible evacuation.

standing rock morton county sherrif This photo of a confrontation between Standing Rock protesters and law enforcement was provided by the Morton County, North Dakota Sheriff's office.

The US Army Corps of Engineers said the protestors would have to move to a “free speech zone” to the north of where the camp currently sits.

The battle over the 1,880-kilometer pipeline has crystallized into an emblematic stalemate between environmentalists and big oil. More poignantly, it has become a historically pregnant standoff between government law enforcement and Native Americans, for whom it’s not hard to view the pipeline as a contemporary land-grab

The Standing Rock Sioux Nation says federal overseers gave approval for the pipeline without adequately considering ancestral cultural sites and potential water damage to the Missouri River, their water source.

The land where the pipeline runs is not part of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. But the pipeline nonetheless crosses the Sioux Nation’s ancestral lands where its forebearers hunted, fished, and where buried.

The protests have drawn thousands of Native Americans and activists to a rural camp outside Cannon Ball — a town in south-central North Dakota, near the South Dakota border — and have set off a firestorm on social media.

What’s at stake?

The Dakota Access pipeline is a $3.7 billion project to carry oil from fields in Western North Dakota to Illinois where it would hook up to other oil pipelines. If commissioned, it will pump some 470,000 barrels of oil a day.

Energy Transfer Partners, which is building the pipeline, has trumpeted that the project will create jobs – 8,000 to 12,000 for construction – but little in the way of permanent positions to monitor it.

Since April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and activists from across the country have set up camps outside Cannon Ball to protest the pipeline and protect the Missouri River from a potential pipeline leak.

What set off last week’s violence?

Tensions were sparked last week when law enforcement tried to force protesters out of a camp they’d set up on a ranch that was recently purchased by Energy Transfer Partners. This led to the arrest of 149 people and hundreds of injuries as police attacked the protesters with fire hoses, tear gas, dogs, and what the father of the most severely injured demonstrator said were concussion grenades.

The local sheriff called it a riot. Protestors said they had been peaceful and that the response to their demonstration was disproportionate and violent. What happened remains intensely debated.

What’s next?

In November the government blocked the pipeline from crossing the river. The Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing approvals previously granted the pipeline, but it’s unclear at this point whether it will block the pipeline altogether or when it will give a decision.

That doesn’t change the fact that the pipeline is nearly complete. Protestors have vowed to stand their ground despite orders to decamp to the “free speech zone” by December 5.

President Obama has called on both sides to show restraint. Energy Transfer Partners, meanwhile, seems uninterested in caving to protesters’ demands.

Speaking to the Associated Press earlier this month just before the latest violence erupted, the company’s chief executive, Kelcy Warren, said she would not consider a different route for the pipeline.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no