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The $3.7-billion pipeline that became a rallying cry for tribes across America

Native American protests of an oil pipeline under construction in North Dakota began this spring with a handful of people praying in a makeshift camp on a nearby Indian reservation.

Months later, after legal wrangling, celebrity endorsements and, most importantly, the arrival of thousands more Native Americans to join the opposition, the issue has exploded into one of the most contentious and high-profile environmental battles in the nation. It involves climate change, tribal rights, the energy economy and jobs. It also wades into delicate issues of how Native Americans have been treated by the federal government for years.

What is the Dakota Access pipeline?

The pipeline would carry more than 400,000 barrels of crude oil daily from the Bakken and Three Forks production regions of North Dakota. The pipeline, 30 inches in diameter, would travel 1,172 miles, passing through South Dakota and Iowa before connecting with an existing pipeline in Patoka, Ill. Its developer, Energy Transfer Partners, based in Texas, says its total cost is $3.7 billion.

Who is opposed to the pipeline?

Environmental and tribal groups who want the United States to transition to renewable energy instead of building more infrastructure to support fossil fuels. Many of the groups also fought the Keystone XL pipeline, which the Obama administration rejected in November.

In Iowa, property owners fighting the taking of land for the pipeline by eminent domain have protested. More than a dozen demonstrators were arrested in Iowa over the weekend.

But by far the biggest and highest-profile protests have been waged by thousands of Native Americans from across the country who have gathered north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The pipeline would travel under a dammed section of the Missouri River, called Lake Oahe, that borders the reservation.

Why are Native American groups opposed?

Native American groups say the most immediate reason they are opposed is that a leak from the pipeline could damage the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply, and that its construction in general would damage sacred sites and ancestral lands – including places flooded decades ago when the Oahe Dam was built. But there is more to this protest than the issues facing the Standing Rock Sioux.

Though the protest began quietly and focused on a specific issue, it came to represent a broad grievance: that for too long the concerns of Native Americans have been given little attention as the nation has approved major energy projects in or near areas where tribes live or consider sacred.

As Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, told The Times last month: “Every time there’s a project of this magnitude, so the nation can benefit, there’s a cost. That cost is borne by tribal nations.”

Nearly 300 tribal groups have expressed support for the protest, as have celebrities including Susan Sarandon, Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The protest follows successful efforts by tribal groups to help stop other fossil-fuel projects. The Indigenous Environmental Network is among several groups that led protests that drew attention to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported crude from Canada’s oil sands into the United States.

This spring, the Army Corps of Engineers rejected a proposed coal export facility in Washington state after the Lummi Nation, a small tribe whose reservation is near the site, argued that it would threaten fishing rights promised in its 1855 treaty with the federal government.

What is the current status of the pipeline?

Energy Transfer Partners says construction of the Dakota Access pipeline across the four states is 60% complete. But after a dizzying set of developments late Friday, construction of the section in North Dakota met a major setback.

That afternoon, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled against a request by the Standing Rock Sioux to stop construction. The judge, James E. Boasberg, said the tribe had been given ample opportunity to express its views during the permitting process and that it had not shown it would be sufficiently harmed by the pipeline.

Yet minutes later, in an unusual move, the Obama administration announced that it was asking Energy Transfer Partners to halt construction in areas near Lake Oahe controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers while the corps reviewed its permitting decisions in those areas.

“This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects,” the Justice Department, the Interior Department and the Army said in a statement.

The administration said it would “invite tribes to formal, government-to-government consultations” this fall to discuss what the federal government should do “to better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protections of tribal lands, resources and treaty rights,” and whether new legislation should be proposed to improve the process.

For Native American groups, it was a victory not in court but in the court of public opinion. That said, the case continues, with the Standing Rock Sioux and the neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux, represented by Earthjustice, filing an appeal of Boasberg’s decision Monday.

What do pipeline supporters say?

On Friday, the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, a group formed to promote the pipeline, praised the Boasberg decision before quickly condemning the administration’s order. The group said the move could set a “horrific” precedent and that “no sane American company would dare expend years of effort and billions of dollars weaving through an onerous regulatory process receiving all necessary permits and agreements, only to be faced with additional regulatory impediments and be shut down halfway through completion of its project.”

Kelcy Warren, the chairman and chief executive of Energy Transfer Partners, said in a memo to staff members on Tuesday that “misinformation” had colored debate over the pipeline, and company leaders intended to meet with officials in Washington “to understand their position and reiterate our commitment to bring the Dakota Access pipeline into operation.”

He said, as the company has many times, that the pipeline will help ensure the domestic energy supply and stable jobs. He also said the pipeline was safer than transporting crude by rail or truck – methods environmental groups are also fighting.

Warren said the company respected Native American culture and history and hoped “to strengthen our relationship” with tribal groups “as we move forward with this project.” On Tuesday, the company removed construction equipment from near the protest site that it said had been damaged by protesters.

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