An early test of the post-election political climate in the United States may come along the banks of the Missouri River, in an old-fashioned standoff between American Indigenous tribes and their allies in environmental movements and the armed force and legitimizing paperwork of the industrial state.
Even before Donald Trump secured election to the American presidency with his program of unfettered fossil fuel development, the company building the Dakota Access pipeline refused to respect a request from the Obama administration that it voluntarily keep its construction crews at least 32 kilometres away from the river. The outgoing and now politically-maimed President had asked for the courtesy while the Army Corps of Engineers scouted for an alternate route that might resolve the conflict.
Obama must now choose whether to expend some of his fast-escaping political capital to push that resolution through within eight weeks, or leave it to the incoming administration.
But the 21st-century replay of a powerful 19th-century meme of colonialism has resonated around the world, drawing global attention and most recently prompting a major financial backer based in Norway to contemplate calling its loans to Energy Transfer Partners, the Houston-based pipeline consortium almost 40% owned by Canada’s Enbridge Inc.
That attention reached the New York Times, whose editorial board urged the company and country to blink on the line’s placement.
“The $3.7-billion Dakota Access pipeline is meant to carry crude oil from the Bakken fields of western North Dakota to Illinois, 1,170 miles to the east. It would not enter tribal land but it would pass close enough for the Sioux to fear grave damage from a leak or spill,” the Times explains. “Its current proposed route runs less than half a mile north of the [Standing Rock] reservation and under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water. The tribe’s sense of grievance is understandable, given that the pipeline was shifted in its direction, away from Bismarck, ND, because federal regulators saw it as a potential threat to that city’s water supply.”
The Times, itself a frequent Trump target, concedes that “a pipeline may well be the most profitable and efficient way to move a half-million barrels of crude oil a day across the Plains.” But “in a time of oil gluts and plummeting oil prices, is it worth it? Is it worth the degradation of the environment, the danger to the water, the insult to the heritage of the Sioux?”
The Army Corps confirmed to DeSmogBlog the authenticity of a video shot from a drone flying in contravention of a ban imposed by local authorities, showing that construction crews had breached the 20-mile voluntary buffer zone. Energy Transfer Partners spokesperson Vicki Granado told the outlet: “We are constructing along the four-state route in accordance with applicable laws, and in areas where we have the necessary local, state, and federal permits and approvals.”
The pipeliners may also be wearing out their welcome in another part of the route. Where construction is proceeding simultaneously in Iowa, “one landowner grew so frustrated with Dakota Access pipeline workers that she delivered a garbage bag to county supervisors that was full of metal debris collected from her fields,” the Des Moines Register reports.
“Countless others across Iowa have petitioned county inspectors, supervisors, and state regulators, claiming that questionable construction practices are worsening tensions between landowners and builders of the 1,170-mile pipeline. And some say the state has failed to do enough to protect landowners who now have a pipeline running through their property.”
“Dakota Access,” the Iowa paper states, “maintains it has upheld its commitments to landowners.”
As winter approaches, Obama may exert more effort to avoid further direct clashes in the renewed Indian wars between pipeliners and hostile tribes. Or he could hand the file off to his successor—who won both Iowa and North Dakota handily.