To answer the title question first, my response is “I don’t know.” Most of what I’ve learned about the dispute between the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the government and private companies over the Dakota Access Pipeline has come from social media, which has been universally sympathetic to the Sioux. They, and other sympathizers and Native Americans, are protesting an incursion of an oil pipeline near their reservation (and on lands considered sacred by the tribe). The reason: not only the development on lands considered sacred (but largely in private hands), but mainly that a leak in that pipeline could threaten the Sioux’s drinking water. For several months the Sioux have been peacefully protesting the decision, with the local police and company employees fighting back. It’s been reported that police fired tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and perhaps water cannons at the protestors, as well as setting attack dogs on them, all of which seems unconscionable given that the Native Americans and their supporters were engaged in civil disobedience, and could have been arrested without the use of these nefarious weapons. The use of everything but water cannons, which has been contested, seems undeniable.
A New York Times interacting map shows the course of the pipeline, which runs from Stanley, North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, shows its long course and giving a capsule history of the project and its critics (click on screenshot as well):
The pipeline, all but built, is meant to ship crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Built almost entirely on private property, the pipeline crosses ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux, passing less than a mile from the tribal reservation. Tribe members fear contamination of their drinking water and damage to sacred sites. They are trying to persuade the federal government to deny permits allowing the pipeline to cross the Missouri River near their reservation. Here’s a short version of the map:
Because most of the social media I follow is Leftist or progressive, it’s all been sympathetic to the Sioux and antagonistic to the government. But venues like the New York Times have also published editorials favorable to the protestors (e.g., here and here). My sympathies, then, were all with the Native Americans trying to protect their lands and well-being. It was like going back to the Sixties, when peacefully protesting blacks and civil rights workers were hit by water cannons, tear gas, police dogs, and cops on horses, images that helped bring passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
I still think that civil disobedience should be met by the authorities with civil response, like carrying the protestors as gently as possible to paddy wagons, but now I’ve seen a counter-piece (granted, an op-ed) about the pipeline protests published by a reputable paper, the Orlando Sentinel. The Sentinel, while a conservative paper, has, according to Wikipedia, endorsed the Democratic Presidential candidate in three of the last four elections: Obama, Kerry, and Hillary Clinton.
The opinion piece, called “What those Dakota Access pipeline protestors don’t tell you,” claims that the intransigence of the government and pipeline companies were much overrated and exaggerated by the Native Americans. Here are some excerpts, all quotes from the article (as are the bullet points). Note that the article is by Shawn McCoy, an economist who is probably a Republican, as he worked for Mitt Romney’s campaign. Here’s how the piece begins:
With the help of celebrities and professional activists, protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota have attracted international attention. The shouting and violence have drawn sympathy from people who are hearing only one side of the story — the one told by activists. Were the full story to be heard, much, if not all, of that sympathy would vanish.
The activists tell an emotionally charged tale of greed, racism and misbehavior by corporate and government officials. But the real story of the Dakota Access Pipeline was revealed in court documents in September, and it is nothing like the activists’ tale. In fact, it is the complete opposite.
The record shows that Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, spent years working diligently with federal, state and local officials to route the pipeline safely and with the fewest possible disruptions. The contrast between the protesters’ claims and the facts on record is stunning.
And its claims:
- “Protesters claim that the pipeline was “fast-tracked,” denying tribal leaders the opportunity to participate in the process. In fact, project leaders participated in 559 meetings with community leaders, local officials and organizations to listen to concerns and fine-tune the route. The company asked for, and received, a tougher federal permitting process at sites along the Missouri River. This more difficult procedure included a mandated review of each water crossing’s potential effect on historical artifacts and locations.
- “Protesters claim that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to consult tribal leaders as required by federal law. The record shows that the corps held 389 meetings with 55 tribes. Corps officials met numerous times with leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which initiated the lawsuit and the protests.
- “Protesters claim that the Standing Rock Sioux pursued meetings with an unresponsive Army Corps of Engineers. Court records show that the roles in that story were in fact reversed. The corps alerted the tribe to the pipeline permit application in the fall of 2014 and repeatedly requested comments from and meetings with tribal leaders only to be rebuffed over and over. Tribal leaders ignored requests for comment and canceled meetings multiple times.=
- “Typical of the misinformation spread during the protests is a comment made by Jesse Jackson, who recently joined the activists in North Dakota. He said the decision to reroute the pipeline so that it crossed close to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water intake was “racism.”He did not mention, possibly because he did not know, that the company is paying to relocate the tribe’s water intake to a new spot 70 miles from the location of the contested pipeline crossing.”The pipeline route was adjusted based on concerns expressed by locals — including other tribal leaders — who met with company and Army Corps of Engineers officials. The court record reveals that the Standing Rock Sioux refused to meet with corps officials to discuss the route until after site work had begun. That work is now 77 percent completed at a cost of $3 billion.”
The article concludes, “Pipeline protesters may have a tight grip on media coverage of the pipeline, but they have a demonstrably loose grip on the facts. The truth — as documented not by the company but by the federal court system — is that pipeline approvals were not rushed, permits were not granted illegally, and tribal leaders were not excluded. These are proven facts upheld by two federal courts.”
The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now (MAIN) is a partnership of entities from the agriculture, business, and labor sectors aimed at supporting the economic development and energy security benefits associated with infrastructure projects in the Midwest. With the domestic energy sector in the midst of an unprecedented boom, the methods by which energy resources are safely transported from “field to market” have never been more important to our nation’s economic well-being, or to our pursuit of energy independence.
So MAIN’s contentions might also be questioned on the grounds of bias. But remember that the other side, too—the Native Americans—are pushing their own narrative. It’s when our sympathies are most engaged by such a narrative that we must be the most skeptical, because all of us are subject to confirmation bias.
The New Yorker has a more sympathetic article that, while not dealing with the issues above (and leaning heavily on claims of the Sioux), does note that the pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, North Dakota, but was rerouted near tribal lands lest a leak ruin Bismarck’s drinking water. That’s reprehensible, for it simply moves the danger from white people’s land to Native American land.
I’m not claiming that all the points in these counter-pieces are correct. And I still think the protestors have been treated abysmally, as have Native Americans in general. I’m generally opposed to the idea of oil pipelines near water sources or ecologically sensitive areas, though I don’t know any other way to efficiently deliver fuel. But if you argue against the points raised above, I ask you to not impugn the sources, but come to grips with the “facts” that they adduce, even if you don’t like them (rather, especially if you don’t like them.) It’s possible that the truth may not be exactly what the emotive pictures on Facebook suggest it is.
At any rate, the issue may soon disappear, as the Army Corps of Engineers has ordered the main protest campsite (and focus of all the attention) closed by December 5. At that time protestors will be arrested and removed.