Trahant Reports: The Inevitable Pipeline That Wasn’t
The federal decision to block the Dakota Access Pipeline gives North Dakota the chance to make a new start and be known for something other than storm-trooper police and water cannons.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has defied history.
Nearly two years ago the Dakota Access Pipeline and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the tribe about an inevitable pipeline that would cross near their reservation and within treaty lands. The tribe objected. But it was inevitable. A done deal.
And in April the Camp of the Sacred Stones was set up as a center by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard as a center for spiritual resistance. Crazy, right? A few people standing together cannot do anything against the absolute power of the state of North Dakota and the oil company billionaires who want this done. Inevitable. A done deal.
Then in August Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II defied state authorities and was arrested in the pipeline’s path. He told Indian Country Today Media Network: ”The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is doing everything it can legally, through advocacy and by speaking directly to the powers that be who could have helped us before construction began.” So what? The $3.8 billion pipeline was inevitable. A done deal.
Then in September the tribe and its allies won a battle when the Obama administration said it would review the matter. “Construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time,” said the joint statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army. “We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”
But the Dakota Access Pipeline’s owners ignored that request. Why should they stop? This entire pipeline route was designed to avoid federal interference. So what if the federal government was reviewing the record. This project was inevitable. A done deal.
In fact a few days later, in an extraordinary exchange before the U.S. Court of Appeals, the company admitted that the process was incomplete. Judge Thomas B. Griffith asked: “Why not wait until you see whether you’re going to get the easement?” asked Judge Thomas B. Griffith. “To a neutral outside observer, it looks like you’re forcing their hand … So it’s a gamble. You’re gambling you’re going to win.”
And why not gamble? The easement was inevitable. A done deal.
But inevitable blew up Sunday night. On the same weekend when thousands of veterans showed up to support Standing Rock, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it will not grant the easement under Lake Oahe. And the corps will now require an Environmental Impact Statement.
So what now? That invincible force known as the oil industry is still out there, saying the project is inevitable.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer said: “Today’s unfortunate decision sends a very chilling signal to others who want to build infrastructure in this country. Roads, bridges, transmission lines, pipelines, wind farms and water lines will be very difficult, if not impossible, to build when criminal behavior is rewarded this way.”
(Remember the company was proceeding without an easement.)
And from Washington, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers Jay Timmons said the decision “defies logic, science and sound policy-decision making, and the consequences can be measured in lost work for manufacturers and those in the manufacturing supply chain. If a project that has involved all relevant stakeholders and followed both the letter and spirit of the law at every step of this approval process can be derailed, what signal does that send to others considering building new energy infrastructure in this country? We can only hope that President-elect Trump will stand by his promises to invest aggressively in new infrastructure in America and start by overturning this misguided decision and allow the completion of the pipeline.”
There we go again. Inevitable. A done deal. If only the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Tribe, hundreds of other tribes, and people from across the planet would not have got in the way.
But there are three critical things to think about in that chronology and the idea of the inevitable.
First, no energy company can roll over a community that’s united. And that’s all of the communities involved, not just the people of Standing Rock. As Chairman Archambault said Sunday in a news release, “throughout this effort I have stressed the importance of acting at all times in a peaceful and prayerful manner.”
Second, President-elect Donald J. Trump can revisit this issue. He probably will. But it will not be easily undone. I have been writing for months that President Obama would likely take this action but it had to be done in concert with the federal agencies involved. A president’s power is not absolute. (I am really interested in the structure of the Army Corps’ decision to see just how complex it will be for a Trump administration to unwind.)
Third, and most important, this is a moment when North Dakota can tell the world what it really wants to be. The timing is ideal for a new beginning.
Is this a state where the sheer power of police, looking like military, will roll over the legitimate interests of a community? Is this how you tell the world, come to North Dakota, invest, we’re open? Or, does the state now take advantage of this unique opportunity to show what can be done in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the time for the state to get serious about an environmental impact statement, a smarter route, to work with the tribes, end prosecutions, and pardon those who are in the criminal justice system now. Even better: Take one more step and build bridges by investing in the Standing Rock neighborhood.
This whole pipeline encounter was a fiasco that was a better story for the 19th century instead of the 21st. It represented the total breakdown in communications between the tribes and the State of North Dakota. However there’s now a path toward the healing that needs to occur. And that is what should be inevitable. A done deal. #HealNorthDakota
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports