On Sunday, December 4th, 2016, the US Army Corps of Engineers released a statement, through spokesperson Moira Kelley, announcing plans for a potential re-routing of the proposed Dakota Access pipeline away from the Missouri river, respectively from the sacred grounds of the native American Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
The Dakota Access Pipeline or Bakken pipeline is a 1,172-mile (1,886 km), underground oil pipeline project in the United States, currently under construction by Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. This pipeline is intended to be an essential infrastructure project for the energy security of the United States and for strengthening the American economy. It has, however, raised questions regarding its potential impact on the environment.
In recent months, the construction of the North Dakota segment of the proposed pipeline – which was originally planned about half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation – has attracted worldwide attention, especially from environmental groups (e.g. “ReZpect Our Water”) and indigenous communities (e.g. Meskwaki and Sioux tribes). A considerable number of activists, including celebrities and army veterans, have made a united front with the members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and lobbied under the motto “Mni wiconi” (“Water is life”) for an alternative route for the pipeline crossing.
Sunday’s decision was preceded by an announcement made by the Army Corps of Engineers in November, according to which additional discussion and analysis were needed in light of the history of the governmental land acquisitions from the Sioux nation, the importance of Lake Oahe to the tribe, the government-to-government relationship and the statute governing easements through government property. On the same occasion, the Army invited the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to engage in discussions regarding potential conditions on an easement for the pipeline crossing in order to prevent the potential for a spill, to expedite detection and response to a possible overflow, and enhance the protection of Lake Oahe and the tribe’s water supplies.
Although the Army’s decision entails an environmental study of alternative routes, it may ultimately be the new president elect’s administration making the final call on whether to allow the original route or an alternative one. Donald Trump, who owns stock in the company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, has been a keen advocate of a similar proposed project, the Keystone XL pipeline, during his presidential campaign highlighting the opportunities it may create for the American economy, such as its potential to create jobs for Americans, increase tax benefits for local counties and communities, and provide a safe, secure and reliable source of energy to help fuel the lives of Americans.
On the other side of the world, Australia seems to have its own pipeline story, unfolding at the same time. In November 2015, Jemena, a gas, electricity and water provider, was selected by the Northern Territory government to construct the Northern Gas Pipeline (NGP). The Wakaya Traditional Aboriginal Owners, whose land is being targeted for this project, are standing up to this decision in order to protect the environment (water, land and livelihoods) and their sacred sites. Meanwhile, the Australian state of Victoria, aims to introduce legislation to protect the state’s land and its residents from the exploration and development of unconventional gas, including coal seam gas and fracking.
While projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline may present economic benefits by creating job, helping the US to become more energy independent, making oil transportation from North Dakota to major refining markets safer and more cost effective, it may be equally important to ensure the environmental and economic well-being of the communities living in the proximity of such developments, as well as the preservation of local sites with historic, religious and cultural significance. Standing up for water quality and heritage seem to be intrinsically tied to climate justice and the welfare of indigenous communities, present and future.
How may the US government protect nature while continuing the Dakota Access pipeline project?