Are Environmentalists Using Native Americans, and Does It Matter?

More than 200 tribes are protesting an oil pipeline in North Dakota, joined by activists who don’t want it there or anywhere.


In an unprecedented show of inter-tribal cooperation not seen, according to one elder, since the Battle of Big Horn, thousands of activists from at least 200 Native American tribes have gathered in a remote part of North Dakota to protest the construction of a new oil pipeline.

Thousands more have joined them in support: dramatic moments of protesters tying themselves to bulldozers are streaming live on Facebook. A huge campground—dubbed Sacred Stone Camp—comes complete with sweat lodges and schools. Local law enforcement, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the protest, have asked neighboring counties for reinforcements.

But what is this protest really about? In fact, the motives are mixed, and often in tension with one another.

On the surface, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a clash between Big Oil and Native Americans. Industry says the pipeline—a $3.8 billion project of Energy Transfer Products (ETP) that would carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Dakotas to Illinois, where it would be sent to East Coast markets by train—is essential for energy independence. DAPL’s backers also say it poses no serious environmental risk, and so far, multiple agencies and courts have agreed.

DAPL’s opponents disagree. They note that the pipeline crosses the Missouri half a mile upstream from a reservation belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. A leak could threaten the reservation’s water supply. Moreover, activists say, while the route of the pipeline avoids the reservation proper, it crosses tribal lands that contain relics that have already been uncovered during the construction process.

That’s why, on July 27, the tribe—represented by the Earthjustice law firm, which regularly litigates environmental cases in the West—filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for federal lands the pipeline will cross, and which granted permits to ETP. The suit alleges violations of the Clean Water Act, Rivers and Harbors Act, and National Historic Preservation Act. They say the Corps failed to consult adequately with the tribe regarding historic impacts and should perform a full environmental impact statement rather than issue a summary approval (known in the lingo as a Finding Of No Significant Impact, or FONSI).

Simple, right? Big Oil versus Native Americans, energy versus the environment. As Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted this spring, he is (metaphorically) “standing with the Great Sioux Nation to protect their water and lands.”

Not so fast.

On the industry side, DAPL is actually part of a $4.8 billion project, and a dizzying chart developed by enterprising researchers at Food & Water Watch showed 26 banks and nine partners involved in the deals. This is much larger than one pipeline.

On the environmental side, the motives are actually mixed. On the surface, the objections to the pipelines have to do with safety and pollution. Really, though, much of the campaign is about climate change. One leading campaign supporting the anti-DAPL protests, for example, is called #keepitintheground (the “it” being fossil fuels in general) and one of its leading voices is climate activist Bill McKibben. (DiCaprio, too, has been outspoken on fighting climate change.)

Anti-DAPL activists say they don’t want the DAPL built here. But in reality, they don’t want it built anywhere. Their real goals are combating fossil fuel development, moving America toward renewables, and mitigating global climate change. (At present, oil, gas, and coal comprise 81 percent of American energy consumption. Renewables comprise 5 percent.)

And that’s why they love to hate pipelines. The much-debated and for-now-denied Keystone XL, which would transport crude oil from Canadian tar sands to American ports, is perhaps the most infamous. But there are many others, including the Spectra Algonquin AIM pipeline being built across the Northeast, attracting protests in Boston and New York, where the route now runs 105 feet from an aging nuclear power plant.

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And now the 1,134-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline, which some have called the “New Keystone.”

This is not to say spills don’t happen. They do, and they can be devastating. In 2010, for example, a rupture in an Embridge Energy pipeline in Michigan dumped over a million gallons of heavy crude into the Kalamazoo River. It took four years and $765 million to clean it up. And during that time, 35 miles of the river was closed to all public uses. In 2014, 119 pipeline accidents were documented.

Now imagine one happening at Standing Rock.

But these protests and lawsuits have a deeper agenda. Whether they succeed or fail, what these actions are really about is raising the cost of doing business in fossil fuels (which, after all, remains heavily subsidized by the government). If you’re going to do this, environmentalists are effectively saying, you’d better factor in the costs of lawsuits and law enforcement. By effectively making fossil fuel development more expensive, environmentalists shift the calculations in favor of the fuels they prefer, while at the same time making political waves that might turn against the pipeline.

At a certain point, renewables begin to look like a bargain.

Unfortunately, there are some serious drawbacks to this strategy.

First are false consciousness and the specter of exploitation. Are environmentalists in coalition with Native Americans, or are they using them for their own purposes? What about when those purposes are crossed? For example, the short-term alternative to pipelines like DAPL is to put oil on trains and trucks. That’s worse for the climate, but better for the Native American lands. Would environmentalists support it? And if not, is their current solidarity with the Sioux real?

Second, protests aren’t pretty. People (cops, protesters, others) get angry. Tensions flare. And then the story becomes about the protest itself, rather than the underlying issue. This has already happened at Standing Rock, with more stories in circulation about attack dogs, crowd dispersal, and states of emergency than about Native American relics and land claims. In terms of tactics, there’s not much difference between Standing Rock and the Bundy clan’s silly protests at an Oregon wildlife refuge.

Except this isn’t a game. Real people—in this case, Native Americans who have endured centuries of oppression—are put in harm’s way and are, in a sense, pawns in a larger conflict. That’s already happened here, with 29 arrests and counting.

Third, what are the cops supposed to do? Allow the “occupation” to take place? Of course not; they have to do their jobs. And the costs of doing so aren’t picked up by Embridge Energy but by localities like the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota. The police have thus far worked with protest leaders to minimize tensions. But ultimately, they have to do their jobs, which includes keeping roads open and allowing construction equipment to enter construction sites. It’s unreasonable to expect police simply to disobey court orders.

Finally, while “Shut It Down” has an appealing, Occupy-style flare to it, it’s an adolescent form of political action, achieving emotionally gratifying temporary victories that are quickly erased once attentions move on. (Once again, consider the parallels to the Bundys.) The point should be to shut down a system of petro-dependency and environmental insanity, not shut down construction sites for a few days.

What happens now?

Construction began in May 2016; the Army Corps of Engineers granted its permits in July; and judges have denied both the tribe’s request to halt construction and ETP’s request to keep the protesters away. The tribe’s lawsuit is ongoing, with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews federal agency decisions, expected to issue an initial ruling on Sept. 9.

A review of the complaint (all 212 paragraphs of it) by The Daily Beast suggests the tribe may well prevail, in part because of the unique impacts of DAPL on Native American lands and artifacts, which distinguish it from other pipelines. And if the Corps is required to conduct more extensive reviews and issue more extensive permits, the process could take years, during which time environmentalists could apply the same kind of political pressure that derailed the Keystone XL.

That would both preserve the Native American lands and incrementally add to the costs of climate-changing fossil fuels. Whichever of the two is more important.