The Dakota Access Pipeline

Dakota Access Pipeline being constructed through farmland near Sioux Falls, SD.
Dakota Access Pipeline being constructed through farmland near Sioux Falls, SD. Sinisa Kukic / Getty Images

The Dakota Access Pipeline Project consists in a 30-inch diameter pipe connecting the Bakken shale oil formation area to a storage and distribution hub in south-central Illinois. The 1,172 mile pipeline, also called the Bakken Pipeline, will be able to carry up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil each day. The pipe's path snakes through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. From its destination in Patoka Illinois, the oil is slated to be piped further in an existing pipeline network to refineries elsewhere in the Midwest, on the East Coast, and in Texas. Project developers assure the oil will be refined for the domestic market, and not for export, but some observers report that little could prevent the oil, in crude form or refined, from being exported overseas.

A Need for a New Pipeline?

The relatively recent development of hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, has facilitated the extraction of oil and gas from shale geological formations all over the world, including natural gas in the Marcellus shale in the Appalachian region and in the Barnett Shale in Texas. In North Dakota, the new techniques now allow the exploitation of the Bakken shale formation for its oil, with over 16,000 wells drilled by 2014. The region, however, is located in the heart of the continent, thousands of miles from heavy population centers and existing oil refineries. The oil produced in the Bakken needs to be transported long distances over land to reach markets, without the benefit of high-capacity tanker ships. Existing solutions like tanker trucks and rail transportation have major drawbacks, not the least of which is public safety. Truck and railroad accidents have occurred, none as deadly as the 2013 Lac Mégantic disaster when a train carrying Bakken crude oil exploded in the center of a small Canadian town.

Proponents of the Dakota Access pipeline project cite railroad and trucking incidents to justify the transportation of oil via pipeline, an approach they deem safer. Unfortunately pipelines do not have a stellar safety history either, as on average 76,000 barrels of hazardous products are released from pipelines accidentally every year. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recorded, between 1986 and 2013, close to 8,000 pipeline incidents in the United States.

At an estimated cost of $3.7 billion, the project would benefit a number of specialized construction contractors. Thousands of temporary jobs are expected, but only about 40 permanent jobs. 

Opposition to the Pipeline

South of Bismarck, North Dakota, the pipeline path grazes the north side of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, home of members of the Sioux nation. The Standing Rock Sioux oppose the pipeline construction, stating damage to cultural resources and to their water supply. In July 2016 the Standing Rock Sioux filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer, which issued permits for the privately-built pipeline. Specifically, the tribe members are concerned with a lack of formal consultation in the matters of:

  • Violations of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The pipeline is slated to pass under the Missouri River a few thousand yards upstream from the reservation. The river is the tribe’s only source of water.
  • Violation of the National Historic Preservation Act. The pipeline will be passing through burial areas and other sacred sites. While waiting for a court decision in September, part of the pipeline corridor was bulldozed, destroying sensitive cultural resources.

Before issuing any permits, the federal agencies involved needed to consult with Indian tribes about religious or cultural interests, recognizing the tribes’ stakeholder status and including them as collaborative bodies. This responsibility remains even when those interests are on land outside of a reservation.

In their filing, the tribe asked the court to issue a restraining order halting construction. That request was denied, and the tribe appealed. The Obama administration asked construction to pause to allow for further discussion.

Complicating the issue, claims are being made that some of the private land the pipeline is slated to be built on should be recognized as Sioux treaty land under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

National, Not Just Regional, Concerns

The Standing Rock Sioux received high-profile support from a number of leading anthropologists, archaeologists, and museum curators who in a letter to the federal government warned against the destruction of significant cultural places and artifacts in an area “important to our national history”.

Beyond the water quality and sacred sites issues, many environmental groups have joined the Standing Rock Sioux in support of their fight against the Dakota Access pipeline. Environmentalists find the project incompatible with the need to move away from fossil fuels in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curtail global climate change.

Along the path of the entire pipeline, many farming communities are concerned about potential damage to farmland from oil spills, and on the eminent domain condemnation of private lands on behalf of a private corporation.

Tumultuous Protests

Meanwhile, a section of the pipeline’s path is the site of ongoing demonstration bringing together Standing Rock Sioux, members of other American Indian nations and tribes, and protesters from all over the country. A large encampment has been set up, from which road blockades and protests launch daily. Some of the demonstrations have aimed to block construction progress, and included protesters chaining themselves to heavy equipment. A violent confrontation occurred over Labor Day weekend when protesters clashed with security workers who used pepper spray and deployed guard dogs.  

Dozens were later arrested, including Democracy Now! executive producer Amy Goodman who was there to report on the protests. She was criminally charged with rioting, although a district judge eventually dismissed those charges.

Throughout the months of October and November 2016, the number of demonstrators swelled, and so did the law enforcement presence. The tribes and their allies won a major battle on December 4 when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that alternative paths were going to be studied.

However, in January 2017 the Trump administration signaled interest in pushing forward the project. President Trump signed a memo ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up review and approval of efforts to complete the project.