What You Need to Know About the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest

Native Americans from tribes all over the country are protesting the construction of a crude-oil pipeline slated to snake through sacred sites and under the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

What You Need to Know About the Dakota Access Pipeline

Native American protesters march to a sacred burial ground site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on Sept. 4, 2016. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Update 11/24/2016: This story has been updated to reflect the latest clash between protestors and police and provide an update on federal court actions.

Thousands of protesters, including Native Americans from more than 100 tribes across the country, have traveled to North Dakota to help the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe block the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built.

Violence erupted last Sunday night after some 400 protestors, who call themselves “water protectors,” tried to dismantle a police-enforced barricade on a bridge that was shut down last October. The Morton County Sheriff’s Office responded with armored trucks, rubber bullets, tear-gas, mace, and in sub-zero weather, water cannons. The Oceti Sakowin medical team, working with Standing Rock Sioux tribal medics, said that nearly 200 people got treatment for tear gas, hypothermia and blunt trauma. It was the latest in a series of violent clashes over the fall.

In September, the Standing Rock Nation filed an emergency petition to overturn the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit for the pipeline, which will be located a half-mile from the reservation through land taken from the tribe in 1958. The tribe says they were not consulted and a survey of the area found several sites of “significant cultural and historic value” in the pipeline path, including burial grounds.

But Dakota Access crews began bulldozing anyway, leading to a violent confrontation between protesters and security guards. Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman was at the construction site as security guards attacked protesters with pepper spray and dogs.

The Standing Rock Sioux went to federal court to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline bulldozers from further destroying sacred sites. A US district judge temporarily stopped work on the pipeline, but then issued a ruling clearing the way for work to continue. A lawyer for the tribe stated that they would appeal the decision.

Shortly after that ruling, Indian Country Today reported that the “US Department of the Interior, Department of Justice and Army Corps of Engineers issued a joint statement that, in effect, temporarily halted all construction bordering Lake Oahe on the Missouri.”

This month Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline operator, filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding a decision to let them continue construction, as well as announcing that it will refuse any proposal to reroute the pipeline from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water supply.

What is it?
The Dakota Access Pipeline Project (DAPL) is a $3.78 billion conduit being built from the oil-rich Bakken fields in North Dakota, near the Canadian border, through South Dakota and Iowa, to Patoka, Illinois, where it will join up with existing pipelines to transport up to 570,000 barrels a day of crude to refineries and markets in the Gulf and on the East Coast. The Army Corps of Engineers approved the project in July with a “fast-track” option, allowing it to run under the Missouri river. The “mega-pipeline” is 1,172 miles long, making it just 7 miles shorter than the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that the Obama administration rejected last November after a seven-year battle. The parent company of Dakota Access LLC is Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, whose board of directors includes Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas and whose investors include President-Elect, Donald Trump. This week ETP and Sunoco announced a $20 billion merger. Mother Jones reports that ETP’s CEO Kelsy Warren, who will continue to run the new pipeline company, donated $100,000 in support of the Trump campaign.

The Threat
The pipeline is being built near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The tribe says the pipeline disturbs sacred sites, infringes on past treaty promises and tribal sovereignty, and is a significant danger to their water supply since it passes underneath the Missouri River — the main source of water for the reservation. An earlier proposal had the pipeline crossing the Missouri north of Bismarck, but authorities were concerned about the risk to the capital’s water supply in the advent of a pipeline spill.

Seven-year-old Omaka Nawicakinciji (right) of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota joins his mother, Heather Mendoza, in a protest against Dakota Access Pipeline Aug. 24, 2016 outside US District Court in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Seven-year-old Omaka Nawicakinciji (right) of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota joins his mother, Heather Mendoza, in a protest against Dakota Access Pipeline Aug. 24, 2016 outside US District Court in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Protests
The protests began last January after North Dakota approved the pipeline project. Residents of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation immediately petitioned the US Army Corps of Engineers to deny the final permit. In April, residents of the reservation and supporters from other tribes set up camp near the construction site to keep an eye on the pipeline workers who were waiting for approval and preparing to break ground.

Standing Rock youth launched a petition called Rezpect our Water, and in mid-July set out on a 500-mile relay run to Washington, DC to deliver a petition of 160,000 signatures. Officials at the Department of the Interior, the EPA and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation voiced concerns. Dozens of environmental groups joined together to oppose it and celebrities spoke out, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Shailene Woodley and Jason Momoa and his Justice League co-stars, including Ben Affleck. The Army Corps of Engineers approved the permit in July.

On Aug. 10, construction began and a dozen demonstrators were arrested as they tried to stop it. The call for help went out, using social media and the #NoDAPL and #WaterIsLife hashtags to spread information, and within a week hundreds of protesters arrived, swelling the ranks to more than 2,500. State officials shut down the highways leading to the site and removed state-owned water tanks that had been brought in by North Dakota’s Health Department earlier in the summer to serve the encampment. With thousands of protesters still gathered, Gov. Jack Dalrymple declared a state of emergency on Aug. 19.

On August 24, hundreds of protesters gathered in Washington, DC, in front of the federal courthouse waiting for a decision in the case, but the decision was delayed for further review. In September, federal Judge James E. Boasberg issued a ruling that “rejected efforts by the Standing Sioux Tribe to halt construction.” Shortly afterwards, the federal government issued a statement urging the company to pause construction.

The Process
The Dakota Access pipeline was fast-tracked from the beginning, using the Nationwide Permit 12 process that treats the pipeline as a series of small construction sites and grants exemption from the environmental review required by the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. And since it does not cross an international border, as the Keystone XL project did, it escaped a more probing federal analysis of its economic justification and environmental impact, according to the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, David Archambault II, who wrote in a New York Times op-ed that they have been opposing the pipeline since they first learned of it in 2014.

Food and Water Watch mapped out the institutions that are bankrolling Dakota Access, LLC and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, and learned that the Standing Rock Sioux are pitting themselves against the financial interests of at least 17 firms that have loaned the company $2.5 billion to construct the pipeline.

The Media Silence
The images of guard dogs attacking protesters woke the mainstream media early in September, which had sparsely covered the growing opposition to the pipeline. Throughout the standoff, Mother Jones, Indian Country, AP and local papers like The Bismarck Tribune have provided ongoing coverage and analysis.

Update 9/9/2016: This story has been updated to reflect the federal court ruling and the statement by the Justice and Interior Departments and the Army urging that construction be paused.

Gail Ablow


Gail Ablow is a producer for Moyers & Company and a Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy.