During assembly on Friday, December 9, Sophie Hurwitz '17 talked about the issues surrounding the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Her presentation is part of the ongoing initiative to help educate the JBS community about current events. Sophie's prepared remarks follow:
Last Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers made a landmark decision to deny Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the $3.7 billion dollar Dakota Access oil pipeline, the permit they need to continue construction of the pipeline under the Missouri river at Lake Oahe. The pipeline was designed to cross 1,172 miles, going through four states, and to transport 470,000 barrels of oil per day.
The Army’s decision to block the pipeline came as a result of months of protest by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies, on the grounds that if the pipeline were to rupture, it would create catastrophic oil spills which could contaminate the water source downstream from the point at which the pipeline was to cross. The Standing Rock Sioux also asserted that the pipeline would go over their sacred land, and that the U.S. government was violating a treaty between the U.S. government and the Sioux Nation from 1851 (although that point is somewhat unclear, since the tribe had a window of time in which the government said they had an opportunity to make an objection to the pipeline on their land, and didn’t.)
The pipeline protests shone a spotlight on native-rights issues in the United States. As anyone who’s taken U.S. history knows, although Native American tribes are legally “domestic dependent nations” within the United States, the U.S. has historically not upheld treaties with them in many cases. Another issue that the pipeline revealed was the intersection of secure water access, race and socioeconomic status, much like in the case of the underprivileged residents of Flint, Michigan during the Flint Water Crisis last spring. The Dakota Access pipeline was originally intended to cross the river at Bismarck, North Dakota, a city with a mostly white population, but was then rerouted to its current location, ostensibly because of concerns over the safety of the Bismarck water supply. This made many conclude that the security of the water supply for the residents of Bismarck was simply being valued more highly than safe water for those living on the Standing Rock reservation.
Others from across the country came to join the Sioux in their protest camps in front of the pipeline, including members of other activist movements such as Black Lives Matter. There were also solidarity demonstrations in cities, including St. Louis. At its peak, thousands of people were living in the Standing Rock protest camps.
One thing that helped turn the tide in favor of the protesters was the fact that a group of hundreds of U.S. Army veterans came to join the protest and to speak out against police violence towards the protesters. This was a powerful image of those who had served our country coming together to make a statement that they did not believe this was right. In fact, many of the veterans are heading to Flint, Michigan next to use their force in supporting the cause of clean water access for all there.
Although last Sunday’s Army Corps ruling was marked as a great victory for Standing Rock, it remains uncertain how much they have actually gained. For one thing, there are already 2.5 million miles of oil pipelines like this one all over the U.S., including one that already crosses the Missouri river at the exact same spot this one would have. Additionally, President-Elect Donald Trump has previously voiced his support for the pipeline, saying that he will “review all the facts” once in office and that the pipeline is “something we support construction of.” He could easily overrule the Army’s ruling upon his inauguration on January 20.
Regardless of these factors, however, the controversy of the Dakota Access pipeline has become a symbol of the tensions between environmental and business interests and the power that mass mobilization can have.
The questions this situation raises — whether or not water can be considered as a human right, and whether the economic benefit to many can justify the environmental and health risks to a few — will need to be answered by politicians and citizens in the near future.