The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s Bakken Pipeline Standoff, Explained

After hardly a mention in the national media for more than two years, Dakota Access LLC’s plans to construct a $3.7 billion 1,168-mile pipeline from the Bakken and Three Forks oil shales in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to a hub in Illinois have been generating big headlines throughout August thanks to a sustained protest by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other members of the Lakota and Dakota Nations. From the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed to the New York Times and BBC, the project is finally getting the attention activists think it’s deserved — but, some of them wonder, is it too little, too late? Here’s a summary of where things stand.

How long have the Standing Rock Sioux been protesting?

In January, after state regulators approved the Bakken pipeline, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation petitioned the US Army Corps of Engineers demanding that it deny federal permits for the pipeline’s construction across waterways, namely the Missouri River, which the pipeline would cross less than a mile from the reservation outside of Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The petition argued this would violate treaty agreements and endanger the water supply that the reservation’s residents have long relied on.

Protest efforts picked up in April, when residents of the reservation and other Native American tribal members established the Camp of the Sacred Stone near the pipeline’s construction site on Army Corps land as workers made preparations in anticipation of final construction approval. In July, after a group of Lakota youth departed on a run to Washington, DC, to deliver the petition to the Army Corps, the federal agency approved the construction permits for Dakota Access. And that leads to where things stand now.

So, where do things stand now?

Approval granted, construction workers contracted by Dakota Access began work. Meanwhile, over the course of two weeks, hundreds of protesters joined the spirit camp occupation and obstructed the construction route. As the showdown intensified, more than 20 people were arrested and Dakota Access temporarily shut down the construction site at the request of Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, claiming activists threatened its workers and threw rocks and bottles at their cars. Kirchmeier said he’d received reports of gunshots and claimed protesters planned to chuck pipe bombs at a police line; protesters responded that weapons (and also drugs and alcohol) were banned from the camp and that the “pipe bombs” were really just ceremonial chanupa pipes sacred to the Lakota.

Amid the commotion, North Dakota’s Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple declared a state of emergency, citing a “significant public safety concern” as the occupation grew to more than 2,000 people. Soon after, Morton county officials did likewise to help pay for police overtime, the sheriff’s office estimating the weekly cost of policing the protest at $100,000. Trailers and water tanks delivered earlier in the month by North Dakota’s Health Department were removed at the direction of the state’s homeland security director, Greg Wilz, who cited two alleged incidents of laser lights pointed at planes monitoring the protest site and said, “Based on the scenario down there, we don’t believe that equipment is secure.” Estimates of the protest’s size over the past couple weeks have ranged from about 500 to 4,000 people, with several hundred currently present.

“For the moment, the mood there is calm, but anxious. North Dakota’s governor has declared a state of emergency there, and law enforcement has barricaded the main highway leading to the protest site and the campers,” the New York Times’ Jack Healy reported Friday. “Hundreds of people are camped out about a mile down the road from the construction site. They say they are there to pray and protest peacefully, but some people are worried that the situation could turn volatile if work resumes at the site or the government tries to disband the camp.”

Why is this just now making so much national news?

This has been a frustration for activists since Dakota Access first announced the Bakken pipeline project in June 2014. At that time, another project, TransCanada’s Keystone XL, was facing intense opposition from environmentalists and dominating the national news coverage on the topic — even though the Bakken pipeline would only be seven miles shorter than Keystone’s proposed length.

President Obama halted Keystone last November over concerns about climate change, and now that Canadian energy transportation giant Enbridge has bought a stake in the Bakken pipeline, some activists (and news outlets) have started referring to the project as the new Keystone (that project would have transported oil from Alberta tar sands into the United States).

But more simply, conflict, and especially visually arresting conflict, makes for popular news, and the images of the standoff between tribal members on horseback and police are striking. Along with the growing tensions, there’s more of a sense of immediacy now; in North Dakota, workers didn’t start clearing the pipeline’s path for construction until May, and the final construction permits from the Army Corps weren’t approved for the project until the end of July. It wasn’t until mid-August that construction efforts for the pipeline itself really accelerated. (Dakota Access continues to say it plans to have the whole project completed and operational by the end of the year.)

Celebrities have also joined the cause, which doesn’t hurt.


Actually, some celebrities began speaking out against the pipeline long before national media coverage took off this month. Actress Shailene Woodley has publicly opposed the project since February. In May, actor Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted a link to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s Army Corps petition on, which has also been signed by Hollywood figures including Woodley, Darren Aronofsky, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Tinsel Korey, and Mark Ruffalo.

Last month, Woodley joined actresses Rosario Dawson and Susan Sarandon in Philadelphia to protest the pipeline at the Democratic National Convention (ahead of the Iowa caucuses in November 2015, Bernie Sanders became the only major presidential candidate to publicly oppose the project). She’s also traveled to the camp in North Dakota. And last Wednesday, Woodley and Sarandon, along with actress Riley Keough, protested it in Washington, DC.

Why was there a protest in Washington?

Last Wednesday, the actresses joined about 100 members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who gathered outside a federal courthouse in the nation’s capital to protest the Bakken pipeline. Inside, a judge weighed the arguments in a lawsuit filed by the tribe requesting an injunction to halt construction. The tribe has argued that it wasn’t adequately consulted by the Army Corps as required before permits are granted and that the pipeline’s construction would harm its water supply and sacred lands in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act. (Earlier in the month, Dakota Access filed restraining orders against several protesters for blocking construction.)

Could the protests actually kill the project?

It’s possible. James Boasberg, the US District Court judge hearing the tribe’s case in Washington, said Wednesday that he will decide by Sept. 9 whether to grant the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation the injunction it seeks that would halt construction while its lawsuit proceeds. Other legal battles, including a lawsuit filed by 14 Iowa landowners against Dakota Access’ use of eminent domain, are still in progress, and activists continue to plan other methods of resistance, too, including more direct actions in the pipeline’s path of construction.

As the Informer has previously noted, plans for two other pipeline projects have already been tripped up this year. Kinder Morgan Inc. halted its $1 billion Palmetto Pipeline project, which would have transported petroleum from South Carolina to Georgia and Florida, after Georgia lawmakers passed a bill to place a one-year moratorium on eminent domain seizures by pipeline companies and South Carolina’s state Senate voted to prohibit the use of eminent domain by private, for-profit companies. In the face of widespread opposition, Kinder Morgan also abandoned its $3.3 billion Northeast Energy Direct project that would have piped fracked gas throughout New England.

Meanwhile, what’s going on in Iowa?

Dakota Access recently said it has cleared land along 75 percent of the pipeline’s route across the state and completed work on 22 percent of the route. Farmers have already complained that construction has damaged their soil, and last Monday the landowners suing over the use of eminent domain by the private pipeline company requested emergency action from the Iowa Utilities Board to temporarily stop construction after a judge denied a similar request. On Friday, the IUB also shot the landowners down (PDF).

Today, Bold Iowa, a group run by former state representative and pipeline opponent Ed Fallon, and 100 Grannies for a Livable Future, another group against the project, plan to be at the State Fairgrounds for Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride, where GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is scheduled to be the keynote speaker. They plan to greet Trump, who has a history of abusing eminent domain, with the message “No eminent domain for private gain.” On Wednesday, Bold Iowa and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement plan to hold a “non-violent civil disobedience training” in Pilot Mound before forming a blockade against the pipeline in the afternoon. “For only the second time in our 41 year history, we are encouraging the use of civil disobedience and mass arrest as a key tactic in our pipeline fight,” Adam Mason, ICCI’s state policy director, said in an email announcing the action.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.