A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending a few days out at the activist encampment in Standing Rock, North Dakota, the primary site of resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the 1,172-mile-long “black snake” that, if completed, will bring crude oil from the Brakken oil fields all the way to Illinois.
Led by the Lakota people of the Standing Rock Reservation whose sacred sites are being ravaged by the construction, the encampment has attracted tens of thousands of activists over the last several months. With people arriving from every tribe across the continent, in addition to a diverse multitude of allies, the encampment has quickly become one of the largest gatherings of Native Americans in history.
Over the next week, I plan to write a series of pieces based on my trip, covering a variety of topics, but first, I’d like to answer the question that I’ve received most since getting back to Portland:
Is it over?
I first heard the news as I was sitting in the Minneapolis Airport, awaiting the last leg of my trip out there, when a friend texted me that the Army Corps of Engineers had just announced that construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline would need to halt until the federal government could complete an Environmental Impact Statement.
An EIS can take anywhere from two months to 18 years, so it’s not impossible that this announcement, which was made Dec. 4, will mean a serious victory for the activists and an end, for now at least, of the construction efforts.
It’s possible that instead of doubling down and renewing their efforts, the investors will simply choose to cut their losses and walk away. The project has already cost $3.8 billion, and the price of crude oil is down to less than half of what it was around this time three years ago (dropping from $110.53 in Sept. of 2013 to $51.91 today). At this rate, it will take the investors years to recoup the costs of construction.
Throw in the EIS and the growing global condemnation as groups like Amnesty International have begun speaking out about the authorities’ violent suppression of the activists, and it’s no surprise that some investors, like DNB, a Norwegian bank which provided 10% of the initial capital, appear likely to pull out.
But, even if some investors leave, it seems likely that others will remain.
The pipeline is largely completed, with the exception of the section crossing the Missouri River (where the encampment is). Despite the recent slump, for a number of reasons the price of oil is currently rebounding, and it’s now the highest it’s been in almost a year and a half. With a pro-oil, climate change denier like Trump about to become President, it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen.
For now, DAPL is keeping their lights on. Literally. Every night, massive floodlights from the construction site shine into the camp, like the all seeing eye of Big Brother.
Rumor in the camps is that DAPL has built semi-permanent barracks to house their private security forces. Who knows if it’s true – much of what I heard in the camps may have just been speculation passed around campfire to campfire – but it’s clear that the construction crews and their armed enforcers are not about to go anywhere.
In fact, the day that the Army Corps denied the easement, DAPL put out their own statement, ensuring that they are “fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.”
In the camps, there’s even a rumor that DAPL is actually going to continue to build anyway, despite the order to stop, and with the intention of simply paying the subsequent fines down the road, but upon further research, I think it’s pretty clear that won’t happen.
But God knows they want to. In any case, nothing’s over.
At best, the fight has just been prolonged.
For now, as weather conditions are worsening, the local elders are asking that “anyone that is considering traveling to join the encampments at Standing Rock stay home and instead take bold action in your local communities to force investors to divest from the project.”
Although many people are still hunkered down for the winter out there, as I see it, the request to bring the fight home is actually a much more ambitious call to action.
It’s one thing to travel across the country to witness something extraordinary. Something else altogether to make something extraordinary happen in our own community here in Maine.
But I believe we can. Tides are turning, and we’re flowing into a new moment.
If there’s one thing I brought home from my trip to Standing Rock, it’s hope.