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Despite protests, Dakota Access Pipeline nears completion

February 26, 2017 at 2:55 PM EDT
Last year, the Obama administration froze the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, designed to carry North Dakota oil to Illinois. But President Trump has rebooted construction, which is now near completion. Public media's "Inside Energy" in conjunction with Rocky Mountain PBS produced a documentary called "Beyond Standing Rock" set to air on PBS stations in March. Reporter Leigh Paterson has this story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The controversial Dakota Access Pipeline is designed to carry North Dakota oil through the Dakotas and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Illinois. Following months of protests the Obama administration stopped the project but President Trump has put it back on track. The public media collaboration “Inside Energy,” in partnership with Rocky Mountain Public Media, has produced a documentary called “Beyond Standing Rock,” about what led to the protests and presidential actions. Reporter Leigh Paterson has this excerpt from the documentary.

PROTESTER: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom! It is our duty to win!’

LEIGH PATERSON: The protesters came from all over the country to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline. For many this is a fight over clean water. For others it’s a fight against big oil and climate change. For the Standing Rock Sioux it’s a fight for control.

KEVIN WASHBURN: Tribes are flexing their muscle. They are sovereign nations and they have the ability to get engaged.

LEIGH PATERSON: Misinformation, emotion, and confusion surrounded these protests. More than 600 protesters have been arrested.

JON MOLL: It’s kind of turned unfortunately into kind of a small truly peaceful protest, Native American movement, into a big white hippie Burning Man on the plains of North Dakota in the middle of winter.

JULIE FEDORCHAK: Sometimes people just say, like, they’re opposed to pipeline development, and they’re opposed to pipelines. Well, that’s fine, and they’re entitled to their opinion, but pipeline development is legally permissible in North Dakota, and we’re obligated to enforce the laws. So when a company meets the conditions set by law for a permit, they receive one.

LEIGH PATERSON: The standoff here was brought on by a convergence of issues: tribal sovereignty, energy infrastructure, environmental activism, and Federal Law.

DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: We’re a sovereign nation, and we’re putting our foot down, and you can’t do this to us anymore. In the past the Federal Government steamrolled through us and did everything that they wanted to do without giving us an opportunity to have any consent or consultation.

The Dakota Access Pipeline stretches for nearly 12-hundred miles…completely buried underground.

The Dallas-based pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, says it’s a nearly four billion dollar project. The company declined Inside Energy’s request to be interviewed. But it has argued that the pipeline is the best way to move crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota to market. Last month, Energy Transfer Partners posted this video on YouTube explaining the project’s merits.

VIDEO: “Pipelines are the safest, environmentally cleanest, and least expensive way to transport the fuel that our communities need.”

DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: We can look at this pipeline and say that it puts our water at risk. We could also take a look at what it also puts at risk. It puts our sacred sites at risk.

LEIGH PATERSON: The controversy has centered on the only incomplete section of the pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners says there is one thousand 94 feet left to build. A stretch that’s around three football fields long that crosses under the Missouri River, just north of the reservation.

DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: It’s not if it will break it’s a matter of when it will break and where it’s gonna break and if it breaks under this river, it puts us at risk.

TROY EID: I would counter that the pipeline safety record in this country for crude oil pipelines is incredibly strong.

LEIGH PATERSON: The U.S. produces billions of barrels of crude oil a year. Much of it travels through a vast pipeline network that’s tens of thousands of miles long.

TROY EID: We’ve had very few issues with natural gas, crude oil, and other kinds of pipeline infrastructure in the United States. It is a very high risk, low probability scenario in this country for a pipeline failing, so you’ve got to put that on the table.

LEIGH PATERSON: Nearly all of the oil moved by pipeline arrives at its destination safely. But it’s the fraction of a percent that’s spilled that can have devastating effects.

I’m a North Dakota citizen. I don’t want these pipelines spilling into our waters and on our land and ruining our beautiful landscape in North Dakota either.

LEIGH PATERSON: Beginning in the spring of 2015, the North Dakota Public Service Commission held three public hearings on the Dakota Access Pipeline route. None of those hearings were on the Standing Rock reservation, because the pipeline wouldn’t actually cross it.

JULIE FEDORCHAK: So I had no idea that this was a concern to the Standing Rock members or the tribal council at all.

LEIGH PATERSON: The state is not the only party that had to sign off on the pipeline. The Federal Government, in this case, the Army Corps of Engineers was also charged with permitting certain sections and consulting with the tribe.

TROY EID: Consultation, as we understand it in Federal Law, doesn’t say tribes can block every project. What it says is that they have a seat at the table as a government to express a point of view and that you can’t ignore that.

DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Every time we called and every time we talked to the Corps of Engineers we said, ‘This is not consultation, and we don’t agree with this pipeline. Can we take a step back and start over?’ And the Corps of Engineers says, ‘Well, we called them, we emailed them, we called Chairman Archambault’s office.’ Every time we didn’t agree with what they were doing. But that’s not heard. So we don’t get listened to, we don’t get heard. Check off the box. ‘We talked to the tribe.’

LEIGH PATERSON: The Dakota Access Pipeline is not the first controversial piece of infrastructure to cross this land. In the mid-20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers created dams up and down the Missouri River as part of a large flood control and hydropower project.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: “Here in this state, there is being built the largest dam of its kind in the world. It is a source of pleasure to me as President therefore to come here on this occasion.”

LEIGH PATERSON: Villages were flooded, including an area where many Standing Rock Sioux had made their homes. This dam created Lake Oahe, flooding over 50 thousand acres on the reservation in both North Dakota and South Dakota, driving families out.

President Obama visited Standing Rock in 2014. It was his first visit to a reservation as president. And it was the first time any sitting US president had visited the reservation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: “To build more economic opportunity in Indian country, because every American including every Native American deserves a chance to work hard and get ahead.”

LEIGH PATERSON: Following President Obama’s 2014 visit, the Dakota Access pipeline protests grew and energized the Standing Rock Sioux. After the Army Corps announced last July, that most of the Dakota Access Pipeline route had been approved, the tribe filed suit in federal court in Washington D.C claiming the consultation process was “fundamentally flawed.”

The tribe also argued the pipeline’s impact on historic properties was not properly considered in the permitting process. Federal law requires that, even if the affected property falls outside of reservation boundaries.

The Army Corps disputed the tribe’s claim. Last September, the U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled on the tribe’s request to halt construction. The Standing Rock Sioux lost, but the Obama Administration stepped in and put the project on hold.

TROY EID: I think it’s unprecedented in terms of energy development in this country, that you’d actually have the government’s lawyers, join in a statement, after they lost in court the same day, that they’d go out and say, ‘By the way we’re pausing this project.’ They didn’t convince the judge, so they did something else.

LEIGH PATERSON: Three months later, as fall turned to winter, the protests continued to grow. Then the Obama Administration blocked the final permit needed to build under the river.

PROTEST ANNOUNCEMENT: The Corps of Engineers is gonna deny the easement!”

LEIGH PATERSON: For the protesters and the tribe, it felt like victory. But it would be short-lived.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: “This is with respect to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

LEIGH PATERSON: Seven weeks later, on his fifth day in office, President Trump issued an executive memorandum instructing the Army Corp of Engineers to expedite the permitting process. Just last week, by order of North Dakota’s Governor, protesters left their camps near the pipeline site. Before going, some burned their tents and other structures. Police arrested dozens of protesters that defied the order and forcibly removed them.