Supporters say Dakota Access pipeline is back on. Activists counter: See you in court

Workers in 2015 unload pipes for the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
(Nati Harnik / Associated Press)

The stalled Dakota Access pipeline project is back on, its supporters say, but opponents vow to continue to fight against the hotly debated project, most likely in court.

The latest twist in the long-running battle over the oil pipeline came Tuesday when Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota congressman, tweeted, “Start your engines. #DAPL #Approved.” The Republican lawmaker added in a video statement: “Got word from the White House today and the Dakota Access pipeline now has its final green light. They’re notifying Congress immediately that these final few feet of this critical piece of infrastructure … will finally be completed.”

The $3.8-billion, 1,172-mile pipeline, which would carry up to 570,000 barrels of oil a day from the Bakken oil patch in northwest North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois, then on toward the Gulf of Mexico, is all but complete. Nearly all that’s left to build is a small stretch under the Missouri River, near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.


For nine months, thousands of activists have come to “stand with Standing Rock,” camping out near the pipeline and protesting in the face of tear gas, rubber bullets, “sound cannons” and water hoses in freezing temperatures. At times an estimated 10,000 people, Native American and non-Native alike, were camped out to stop what they called the “black snake.”

In December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partners, the Fortune 500 company building the pipeline, an easement to cross under the river, pending an environmental impact statement, or EIS, which could take months.

Now, proponents claim the fight is over.

“Today, the Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer informed us that he has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the easement needed to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline,” North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said in a statement Tuesday. “This will enable the company to complete the project.”

On Wednesday, however, the Army Corps reiterated that no easement had been granted, and that it “will make any decisions once a full review and analysis is completed in accordance with the Presidential Memorandum.”

A week earlier, President Trump signed executive orders aimed at reviving the stalled Dakota Access project and the Keystone XL pipeline, which the Obama administration declined to approve.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe disparaged Hoeven’s statement as premature, saying the agency was “championing Trump directives to grant an easement for illegal construction” and noting that the Army Corps has not yet granted the easement.

“The Army Corps lacks statutory authority to simply stop the EIS and issue the easement,” the tribe declared late Tuesday night. “To abandon the EIS would amount to a wholly unexplained and arbitrary change based on the president’s personal views and, potentially, personal investments. We stand ready to fight this battle against corporate interest superseding government procedure and the health and well being of millions of Americans.”

Translation: See you in court.

Pipeline opponents on the ground, whose numbers have dwindled to a few hundred hardy folks enduring a bitter winter in the northern Plains, remain steadfast.

“Hoeven and Cramer’s announcement is irresponsible and inaccurate,” said Linda Black Elk, a Standing Rock camp medic and professor of ethnobotany at Sitting Bull College on the reservation. “The easement has not yet been granted. It seems as though they are attempting to incite vulnerable people to violence. It won’t work.”

On Wednesday, a small group of what police called “rogue protesters” faced possible arrest after setting up a new protest camp on higher ground, across from the main camp. But their arrival to what they called “Last Child Camp” was short-lived.

“The group was given a period of time to start dismantling the camp and leave,” the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement Wednesday. The protesters refused, the department said, so authorities moved to evict them. Police erected a roadblock south of the area to prevent traffic from entering, and the area appeared to be in lockdown.

On Wednesday night, the Sheriff’s Department said more than 70 people were arrested on suspicion of criminal trespass.

As for the fight over the pipeline, the self-proclaimed “water protectors” say the process remains in the courts and on the ground.

“In order for them to issue this easement, Army Corps has to abandon a process that they already started,” said Nick Tilsen, a longtime Lakota pipeline activist and founder of the Thunder River Community Development Corp., which builds sustainable development projects.

In September, Tilsen was arrested and charged with a felony after chaining himself to pipeline construction equipment. “I think that the Trump administration is an absolutely destructive and corrupt regime,” Tilsen said, adding that when it comes to oil and money, “they have no regard for human rights, no regard for the environment, and no regard even for government processes.”

Tilsen believes authorities will disregard the legal process and attempt to drive the pipeline through, but that the resistance that took up the hashtag #NODAPL will be broad and deep.

“People are going to take to the streets everywhere,” he said. “We’re going to keep fighting until the very end.”

Also Tuesday night, leaders of the Sacred Stone Camp, across the Cannonball River from the main protest camp, issued a call “inviting all who can come to stand with [us].… We need you now.”

“We have been saying something very simple from the beginning: Water is life,” said Ladonna Bravebull Allard, a leader in the Standing Rock protest movement. “We cannot let the basic essence of who we are be destroyed. We must stand, so we are asking the world to stand with us.”

Proponents, meanwhile, appear confident that the fight is nearly over. Cramer ended his video statement last night with a shout out to his leader: “I’m so grateful to Donald Trump that he is a man of action.”

Whatever the Army Corps rules in the coming days, it is certain that action will be met with action.

“We have tens of thousands of people everywhere,” said camp medic Noah Morris. “Folks will shut down highways, they’ll shut down rail lines, we’ll throw ourselves against the pipeline. It will be economic ruin for the state of North Dakota.” He added: “We are fighting for the soul of America.”

Tolan is a special correspondent.


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7 p.m.: The story was updated to report the arrests of protesters.

The story was originally published at 3:55 p.m.