North Dakota Oil Pipeline Battle: Who’s Fighting and Why



A protester rode a horse through the construction site for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in south-central North Dakota.

Daniella Zalcman for The New York Times

For months, tensions have mounted between protesters and law enforcement officials over the fate of an oil pipeline not far from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 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.

Here is a look at how the battle over the 1,170-mile pipeline has become an environmental and cultural flash point, stirring passions across social media and drawing thousands of protesters to camp out in rural North Dakota.

What is the latest from North Dakota?

Native Americans from scores of tribes have been gathering since April outside Cannon Ball — a town in south-central North Dakota, near the South Dakota border — to protest the Dakota Access pipeline. Starting with members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the protest has since grown to several hundred people (estimates vary), most of them from Native American tribes across the country.


Pipes being stacked for the Dakota Access oil pipeline last year at a staging site in Worthing, S.D.

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Last week, tensions flared after law enforcement tried to remove protesters from a camp they had set up on a ranch that was recently purchased by the company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners. The police arrested 142 people in what local sheriffs described as a riot. The protesters criticized law enforcement for what they called an overbearing and rough response to their demonstration. In all, more than 400 people have been arrested since the protests began to attract widespread attention and thousands of followers late this summer.

What does each side want?

The Dakota Access pipeline is a $3.7 billion project that would carry 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the oil fields of western North Dakota to Illinois, where it would be linked with other pipelines. Energy Transfer says the pipeline will pump millions of dollars into local economies and create 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs — though far fewer permanent jobs to maintain and monitor the pipeline.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe see the pipeline as a major environmental and cultural threat. They say its route traverses ancestral lands — which are not part of the reservation — where their forebears hunted, fished and were buried. They say historical and cultural reviews of the land where the pipeline will be buried were inadequate. They also worry about catastrophic environmental damage if the pipeline were to break near where it crosses under the Missouri River.

As of early November, the federal government has blocked the pipeline company from crossing the river, saying the Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing approvals previously granted for the project.


Omaka Nawicakinciji, 7, of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota, protested the Dakota Access pipeline with his mother, Heather Mendoza, in Washington on Wednesday.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

It is unclear whether the corps will ultimately allow or block the pipeline. It is also anyone’s guess when it will make a final decision.

Are others fighting the pipeline?

Yes. State and federal agencies have approved the pipeline, and some farmers and ranchers have welcomed the thousands of dollars in payments that came with signing agreements to allow it to cross their land. But others oppose the pipeline.

In Iowa, one of the four states that the pipeline would traverse, some farmers have gone to court to keep it off their land. They say that Iowa regulators were wrong to grant the pipeline company the power of eminent domain to force its way through their farms. Most landowners in the 346-mile path of the pipeline through Iowa, however, have signed easements allowing it to be built across their land.

How many pipelines cross the United States?

The United States has a web of 2.5 million miles of pipelines that carry products like oil and natural gas, pumping them to processing and treatment plants, power plants, homes and businesses. Most of the lines are buried, but some run above ground.


American Indians vs. Dakota Pipeline

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others are protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, which they say threatens water supplies and sacred lands.

By Neeti Upadhye on Publish Date August 23, 2016.

Photo by Daniella Zalcman.

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While a natural gas line to a newly built subdivision is not likely to generate national controversy, proposed major pipelines like the Keystone XL, the Dakota Access or the Sandpiper in northern Minnesota have generated huge opposition from environmental groups and people living in their paths.

How safe are pipelines?

Energy companies and their federal overseer, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, promote the safety record of pipelines. Pipeline companies say it is far safer to move oil and natural gas in an underground pipe than in rail cars or trucks, which can crash and create huge fires.

But pipeline spills and ruptures occur regularly. Sometimes the leaks are small, and sometimes they are catastrophic gushers. In 2013, a Tesoro Logistics pipeline in North Dakota broke open and spilled 865,000 gallons of oil onto a farm. In 2010, an Enbridge Energy pipeline dumped more than 843,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, resulting in a cleanup that lasted years and cost more than a billion dollars, according to Inside Climate News.

In a 2012 examination of pipeline safety, ProPublica reported that more than half of the country’s pipelines were at least 50 years old. Critics cited aging pipelines and scant federal oversight as factors that put public health and the environment at risk.

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