Some environmental victories come in the form of a single, decisive moment: the president’s signing of an executive order, for example, or the long-awaited announcement of a jury verdict or Supreme Court decision.
Other victories are more incremental: less the result of a moment than a movement, one that has grown and strengthened over time. Right now, in North Dakota, we’re witnessing the blossoming of one such movement. We’re also witnessing, once again, just how effective individuals can be when they band together and collectively speak truth to power.
On Friday afternoon, members of this movement scored a major triumph — just minutes after processing the news of a devastating legal setback. This remarkable turn of events is testament to the faith and fortitude of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as the thousands of others who have joined their cause over the past several months. While their ultimate victory is yet to be won, there can be no doubt that these individuals have already made history by demanding justice and standing up for their rights.
The Dakota Access pipeline, if completed, would carry half a million barrels of crude oil daily through four states — more than 1,100 miles — on a journey that would ultimately take it to refineries located along the Gulf of Mexico. The companies building the pipeline, led by a company called Energy Transfer Partners, have indicated that they’re willing to spend upwards of $3.8 billion to bring their investment to fruition.
"A marginalized community has spoken out in its own self-defense, and instead of being ignored, it has been heard. And the chorus of supporters demanding justice isn’t fading; it’s actually getting louder."
They’re also willing, it would seem, to desecrate or outright destroy any number of sites held sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe: symbolic cairns, stone prayer rings, even burial grounds. In addition, the current proposed route for the pipeline would pass under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe just half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation. The tribe has long relied on Lake Oahe as its primary source of drinking water. It also uses the lake for irrigation, fishing, and recreation.
In July, tribe members attempted to halt construction of the pipeline by filing a complaint in federal court, charging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not followed proper procedures for public review when fast-tracking its approval. Over Labor Day weekend, however — as both supporters and opponents of the pipeline anxiously awaited a federal judge’s ruling on the matter — Energy Transfer Partners saw fit to begin bulldozing land in preparation for the pipeline’s construction.
This unconscionable and provocative act was greeted, understandably, with a demonstration of opposition by the Standing Rock Sioux — whose cause by this point had been joined by members of more than 200 other Native American tribes as well as by hundreds of nonnative allies. Past demonstrations had been peaceful affairs. The one that took place two Sundays ago, however, was different: In a scene that recalled some of the ugliest images from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the private security firm hired to keep demonstrators at bay chose to use pepper spray and guard dogs. According to one eyewitness, children and tribal elders were among those who suffered dog bites.
Amid this context of violence and uncertainty came the judge’s ruling on Friday afternoon: The Standing Rock Sioux’s motion for injunctive relief was denied. The Army Corps had followed proper procedures in granting its permits, the court concluded; construction on the pipeline could continue.
But then, just as this first shock wave was making its way through the demonstrators’ encampment on the shores of Lake Oahe, a second shock wave hit: the U.S. Department of Justice — with support from both the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Army — announced that it was calling for an immediate and indefinite pause in construction on the lands adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Furthermore, according to the announcement, any pause should extend until after “serious discussion” had taken place between the federal government and Native American tribes “on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”
My organization believes that the Obama administration made the right call in asking the Justice Department to intervene. Such reform is as necessary as it is overdue. The permitting system that allowed Dakota Access to be fast-tracked is broken — riddled with loopholes that have been wantonly exploited by builders and widened further by the Army Corps of Engineers’ complicity.
Thanks to an Army Corps action known as Nationwide Permit 12, massive projects like Dakota Access are often broken down into hundreds of individual micro-projects to avoid the requirement for meaningful public review under the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA, passed by Congress in 1969, requires that major actions with the potential to impose environmental hazard or harm be subject to public review. When companies like Energy Transfer Partners take advantage of Nationwide Permit 12, their intention is typically to bypass the very transparency that NEPA was designed to ensure.
This isn’t the first time that the oil and gas industry has abused this regulatory loophole. But it needs to be the last. Either the Army Corps of Engineers needs to stop allowing such abuse, or it needs to scrap the provision altogether.
The Natural Resources Defense Council stands with the Standing Rock Sioux and fully supports their right to preserve their heritage, their water, and their sovereignty. And we believe that the movement they have spawned will redound to the benefit of all Americans who seek greater transparency and increased public input for oil and gas infrastructure projects that lead to the destruction of our land, air, water, and climate.
In English, the Lakota phrase Mni wiconi translates into “Water is life.” The stark simplicity of that eternal truth, combined with justified outrage at the imminent desecration of their heritage, is what has compelled so many members of the Standing Rock Sioux to speak out. And as they would be the first to acknowledge, their struggle is also our struggle. The grace and strength they have exhibited as they fight for their culture — and for clean water — stand as a model for all communities whose resources are imperiled by an oil and gas industry that consistently puts profits before people.
Their struggle is far from over. But regardless of its ultimate outcome, the Standing Rock Sioux won something valuable on Friday — and thanks to their unyielding efforts, so have we all. A marginalized community has spoken out in its own self-defense, and instead of being ignored, it has been heard. And the chorus of supporters demanding justice isn’t fading; it’s actually getting louder. A movement is building, undeniably, toward a moment.
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