Understanding the Controversy Behind the Dakota Access Pipeline

What to know as protesters and the oil company continue to clash

proposed pipeline
The proposed pipeline is nearly 60 percent complete. Lars Plougmann via Flickr

The controversial Dakota Access Pipeline continues to make headlines. Yesterday, Energy Transfer Partners, the developer behind the $3.8 billion proposed project issued a memo to employees that the pipeline is nearly 60 percent complete, but did not respond to the Obama administration’s recent request for the company to voluntarily halt construction on the project on federal land. The memo did, however, say that the company's CEO plans to meet with federal officials and stated that the project would go forward.

Obama’s statement came after the U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg ruled on Friday that the Army Corps “likely complied” with its obligation to consult the Standing Rock Sioux.

The Standing Rock Sioux opposes the pipeline's construction near the Sioux reservation on the grounds that it threatens their public health and welfare, water supply and cultural resources. What began as a small protest camp in April on the Standing Rock reservation has since morphed into an encampment with over 1,000 people. Over the past few months, the Sacred Stone Camp, as it is now called, has been the site of a number of antagonistic face offs between protesters and the oil company.

In July, they filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal district court asking for a preliminary injunction stopping construction of the pipeline. The lawsuit contends two broad issues, as described on the Standing Rock Sioux’s website:

“First, the pipeline would pass under the Missouri River (at Lake Oahe) just a half a mile upstream of the Tribe’s reservation boundary, where a spill would be culturally and economically catastrophic. Second, the pipeline would pass through areas of great cultural significance, such as sacred sites and burials that federal law seeks to protect.”

While the judge did not grant the injunction, a number of federal agencies, including the Justice Department, the Department of the Army and the Interior Department halted construction on all lands of significance to the Standing Rock Sioux following the decision.

As reported by NPR, the agencies stated:

“The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws.”

As Bill McKibben explains for the New Yorker, the pipeline was originally supposed to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, but it was moved over concerns that an oil spill at that location would have wrecked the state capital’s drinking water. As a result, the pipeline was shifted to a crossing half a mile from the reservation.

The Standing Rock Sioux maintains that the government did not properly consult with them prior to shifting the pipeline’s route, and that the new crossing would entail destruction of sacred spots and old burial grounds. Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux says they plan to appeal the judge's ruling, KFYR News reports.

If completed, the pipeline will span nearly 1,200 miles, connecting the Bakken and Three Forks oil production areas in North Dakota to a river port in Patoka, Illinois. Developers say it would have the capability to “transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day (with a growth potential up to 570,000 barrels per day).”

As relayed in a memo to employees, the company insists that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the local water supply are unfounded.”

The contentious showdown has come to represent a battleground over larger philosophical and ideological issues. As one protester tells Jeff Brady for NPR, “It's about our rights as native people to this land. It's about our rights to worship. It's about our rights to be able to call a place home, and it's our rights to water.”

The federal government, which has asked the pipeline company to voluntarily pause work for 20 miles on either side of Lake Oahe, has not said how long it plans to shutdown pipeline construction.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.