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Dear 100 Hour Board,

I'm confused. I've heard conflicting accounts. Some people say the Dakota pipeline is crossing sacred ground. But I've heard other people say that the government actually went in and double checked with the Native Americans there before building in order to avoid that. What's really going on? And what's the environmental side of it?

football hater


Dear you,

The Wikipedia article on this is super detailed, but unfortunately, the level of detail can actually make it feel even more confusing.

From what I've been able to understand, though, whether the Native American tribes were properly consulted is a key point of dispute in the many court cases that have gone on. Some people claim there were numerous consultations; some people claim there were no consultations; and some claim that the consultations occurred too late, after the most important decisions had already been made.

Part of the difficulty is that the pipeline does not directly cross the reservation, but crosses an area of land that the Standing Rock tribe considers to have been illegally taken from them in the 1800s. They claim that the pipeline is crossing sacred land; the company claims that they did an archaeological survey and found no artifacts that would indicate the land was sacred. To me, this is a flimsy excuse; I doubt the company was particularly motivated to search any more than the bare minimum, and it feels wrong to me for non-Natives to tell Natives where their own sacred land is.

The environmental concerns are the same environmental concerns that crop up whenever a pipeline is constructed; there's the immediate concern of spills or leaks, and the more big-picture concern that building oil industry infrastructure makes it harder to move away from fossil fuels as a society.

The pipeline was originally going to be a lot closer to Bismarck, a non-Native town, and was re-routed to pass close to the Standing Rock reservation instead. Some people claim this is a case of environmental racism; the NIMBYism of the white residents was listened to, whereas the Standing Rock protesters have been badly treated.

In my opinion, it's justifiable to worry about an oil spill. Although oil spills are unlikely for any area in particular, they do happen regularly across the country. The Flint, Michigan water crisis* (which is still ongoing) is a chilling contemporary example of how slow the government can be to enforce an appropriate response to environmental disasters when most of the victims are poor or minorities. And for Native Americans, their land rights have been completely trampled on for hundreds of years. The land is important to their culture and way of life, and they have so little of it left. It's understandable to me that they'd want to guard against any interference or the possibility of pollution. Even if the government did enforce a swift and effective response in the case of an oil spill, it's extremely difficult to clean up an oil spill to the point where the land and water is back to the way it originally was. And I frankly think it's unlikely that the government would insist that the company pull out all the stops to clean up an oil spill that primarily impacted a reservation.

So the TL;DR version is that (1) there have been so many court cases claiming different things about the pipeline that it's difficult to comprehensively prove things as a non-expert, and (2) the concerns mirror general concerns about any other pipeline, but are massively inflamed by centuries of wrongs committed against the tribe and their land rights.

In general, I'm not opposed to pipelines. In fact, this pipeline in particular is transporting oil from an oil field that I used to develop new chemical technologies for, so I have a personal interest in seeing the Bakken oil field develop. I think that energy independence in the United States could be a boon to our foreign policy and I think that pipelines from the Bakken can play an important role in that. But I also believe that the context of all the things the Native Americans have suffered in regards to their land rights** makes this a uniquely sensitive case, and that it would be better for the pipeline to take a different route.


*The Flint crisis was not an oil spill, but the practical results - dangerously contaminated water in minority communities - make it an applicable case study.

**An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is a really great and affordable resource if you're interested in learning more about this. It's written by a Native American and has been highly recommended to me by Native activists.