Can the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests Survive the Winter?

A change of season and a new presidential administration pose the greatest challenges to demonstrators.

Protesters stand off with police during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline.
Protesters stand off with police during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline. (Stephanie Keith / Reuters)

It is cold and growing colder in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where protesters against the Dakota Access pipeline recently fought one of their most tense battles with the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. On Sunday night, 400 people marched toward a bridge that has become the frontline of this fight, where two burned-out trucks and a stretch of coiled barbed wire divided the Standing Rock Sioux Nation from deputies.

Protesters started fires on the road by the bridge. Deputies fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd; as the temperature registered 20 degrees Fahrenheit, deputies blasted protesters with a water cannon mounted to an armored vehicle, sending about two dozen people to the hospital with hypothermia. Protesters also say a 21-year-old woman, Sophia Wilansky, was hit in the arm with a concussion grenade, and the impact mangled her arm so badly she may need amputation. But the sheriff’s department told the Los Angeles Times the explosion likely came when protesters were “rigging up their own explosives.” They said protesters had thrown stones and logs at deputies, injuring at least one. The protest has become an “ongoing riot,” the department said, and it’s asked border-patrol agents from the Grand Forks Sector to step in.

At issue is the 1,170-mile pipeline that would cross hundreds of waterways, wetlands, private parcels, and span four states, funneling half a million barrels of crude oil every day between North Dakota and Illinois. In North Dakota, the pipeline is on private property that lies close to tribal land, although it needs permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to pass below the Missouri River. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation says not only was it not consulted over the project, but that the pipeline imperils the town’s only water source. Standing Rock, supported by environmentalists and other Native American tribes, has challenged the project in court and has protested at the site since last spring. Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the project, is standing firm. The Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to find a solution.

The pipeline project had ramped up quickly; only two years ago it was still a concept. An early plan had originally sent it north of Bismarck, North Dakota, but the Army Corps rejected that route, in part, because it posed a risk to the town’s water supply. So Energy Transfer Partners altered the pipeline’s course to pass just below Bismarck and a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux nation, crossing over its major water supply, the Missouri River, on land taken from the Sioux three times.

The land originally belonged to the Sioux, and the 1868 U.S. Treaty of Fort Laramie set aside this land for them all the way down to the Black Hills in South Dakota, as my colleague Robinson Meyer wrote this summer. The U.S. changed its mind after rumors of gold in the area spread. Then in 1958, the U.S. needed more land to build the Oahe Dam, below which the pipeline is set to cross.

The standoff  between the protesters and the company has steadily become worse. In the summer, videos showed mounted protesters harassing construction security workers in an attempt to delay the pipeline’s progress. It was an action against increased reliance on carbon-producing energy, but also a legal fight over the tribe’s right to be consulted.

Standing Rock says the Army Corps never included the tribe in the surveying process, that permitting was rushed, and, because Energy Transfer Partners relied on old surveys of the land, the pipeline has plowed through sacred ancient sites. The tribe has filed several lawsuits, but most significantly it sued the Army Corps, saying if crude leaked into the Missouri River it would poison their nation’s water source. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., halted construction, but in September the court ruled that Energy Transfer Partners could proceed. Almost immediately the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Interior intervened and ordered construction to pause.

This is where the situation is at currently, with the federal government intervening and Energy Transfer Partners vowing to finish the project. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple is pressuring the Army Corps to let the the project continue. And because along with the change of season this year comes a change in the presidential administration, this seems likely to happen. President-elect Trump has promised to ease environmental restrictions and let energy companies have at America’s “treasure trove of untapped energy.”

Soon the snow will come to Standing Rock, as will Canadian winds that dip below zero degrees and carry freezing rain and sleet. The protesters have raised millions of dollars to fund their protest, and the tents and teepees they spent the summer in are giving way to bunkhouses built of two-by-fours and makeshift sheds with solar panel roofs. They’ve been chopping wood each day, preparing for a long winter.